Off the PitchNov 30, 2018

Union Strong: USLPA Gains Voluntary Recognition from USL

On Tuesday, the United Soccer League announced it would officially recognize the USL Players Association as an independent labor union and the exclusive bargaining representative of the players. Both the USLPA and the USL sees this as a mutually beneficial and positive step forward for the league. “In many ways, this is simply the next, natural step in the evolution of building a great and enduring professional soccer league," said USL Chief Executive Officer Alec Papadakis. 

The groundwork towards earning this recognition was done largely by the  USLPA Executive Committee, which includes Tommy Heinemann of Penn FC, Connor Tobin of North Carolina FC, and Trey Mitchell of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The three players, with Connor acting as the appointed spokesperson, discussed the journey to this milestone and what it means to them on both a personal and professional level. 

Q: How did you get involved in this effort?

Trey Mitchell: At the very end of the USL season in 2017 there were passive talks among the players in the locker room in Pittsburgh, as well as other players such as Tommy and Connor. We were just starting to think of organizing a union, which is now the USLPA. There had been efforts to do this in the earlier years, but they weren’t able to gain recognition from the league. We thought that this was the year in 2018. We felt like it was needed and this was the best opportunity for it to be executed. That’s when the three of us put our heads together to decide on what would be the best way to move this forward and this is where we are now.

Connor Tobin: I’ve played the majority of my career in some variation of the lower division of the United States. This is something that has always been talked about, giving players a collective voice. I think we finally had a group of players that were able to get unified behind a common goal to create a platform for the next generation of players to make this profession more attractive and really improve the overall health of the US Soccer landscape.

Tommy Heinemann: I’ve been up and down the US Soccer pyramid for the last 10 years in the USL, NASL, MLS, and even the USL back in the first and second division days. So I’ve also seen the need and I think other players have too. Our whole desire in this was to form a unified voice, to be able to have a voice for the players. That’s how I personally became involved, and I think we collectively share that as an executive committee that is part of a larger player council. I think that each of those members is also sharing in that motive and desire.

Q: What do you think it was that prevented this kind of organization from happening in the past?

Connor: I think a huge component was that when you look at the history of the lower divisions the last few years there really needed to be a level of stability within the leagues for this to really happen. It appears we’ve gotten to that point and I think that was part of the reason that 2018 was such an attractive year to try to do this. I think the other component was that getting the union effort organized and getting the players behind such a movement is really an education process. You need a fairly large group of players that are not only invested in the mission, but are also willing to put time and energy over a significant period of time. We’re not talking about two or three months, this is something that has been in the works for 10 or 11 months. 

Trey: Looking at the history of the USL, I think this is a true testament to the rapid expansion we’ve had. I think in the later years the USL was a respected league and a league that was sought after by players in America and other countries. With the USL’s presence and the rebranding I think now is the perfect time. I think the USL would agree that there was a need for this with where we are in 2018 as a player’s organization as well as an acting league. I think it was a true testament to the USL with where they are and it makes it a perfect time for this to come to fruition.

Q: What kind of steps did you have to go through to get to this point?

Connor: First, we had to connect a core leadership group and that takes some time. Then, there’s the process of building out the network beneath that leadership group and connecting all the locker rooms. That’s something that both Trey and Tommy put endless amounts of hours into to make that happen. I don’t think that can be understated in the importance of a movement like this. After that I think it really is an education piece, not just an education piece for that leadership team to really learn what steps need to be taken in order to form are, but also informing an entire player base. So again, there was a lot of time spent making sure that the communication down to every player in the league was clear and that it educated everyone on what the process was. From there it was a matter of when we decided to mobilize having to distribute authorization cards to all the players in the league. These cards essentially grant the USLPA the right to bargain on behalf of that individual player. Then, the last part of the year was spent engaging with the league and having discussions about where there’s common ground and how we can collectively make this work on both ends for the players and the league.

Q: What was the response when you went out to players to talk to them about this?

Connor: It depends. The USL is a very diverse league with both demographic and geographic diversity. The starting point for a lot of players is different, so the education piece was really getting everyone to understand what a union can provide. Some people were fully aware, some people not so much. That’s why I think this group spent so much time on the education piece because we felt it was really vital that everyone understood what the benefits of something like this could look like.

If we’re all working together to improve the standards throughout the league, that’s only going to improve the product on the field."

Q: How do you feel this will benefit the player base, league, and sport immediately?

Connor: On the player end I think what it does is it provides a formal voice that can impact the league. It also provides a public place for them to go when they have issues. When you don’t have a union it’s not always clear when you have issues that pop up who to go to for help. I think one of the immediate benefits of getting to this point is that this group can kind of be that focal point for players. On the league side of things we really felt during this process that having a formal players union can make the league more attractive to potential investors. If we’re all working together to improve the standards throughout the league that’s only going to improve the product on the field. If the product on the field is better, that helps bring sponsorship dollars to the table and it helps the operations. We see ourselves as a key component to helping this league continue their upward trajectory.

Tommy: I think it can be explained in one word: protection. 

Q: How important do you think it will be working with other PA’s going forward?

Connor: I think it’s absolutely vital. You want an ecosystem where groups that represent players are working together. We have a common interest and common ground and we want to be unified on things. I think our group particularly, we’ve already been trying to start that process with the MLSPA. The MLSPA has been more than generous with both their time and knowledge with helping us through the process. We’re already extremely excited to be getting established, and also to be starting to build really positive relationships with some of the other entities that are out here in the U.S. soccer world.

Q: What other support did you have in trying to put this together? Who else helped along the way?

Tommy: We were very blessed to have a committed and dedicated legal team. That was the one ally that we have had in this that has been very dedicated and willing to help and walk us through this process.

Trey: Steven Gans (Prince Lobel), Richard Wayne (Prince Lobel), Paul Kelly (Segal Roitman) and  Shelly Kroll (Segal Roitman) played a substantial role in getting this done and being able to be our representation in the negotiations as well as everything that has been done from point A to now. We would like to continue to keep that relationship moving forward and we think they are vital to what the USLPA is now today.

Connor: We’ve had a lot of productive conversations with a lot of different entities, I won’t go into specifics but one group that has been helpful is also the AFL-CIO. They’ve been very helpful in giving us a different view after we educated ourselves on this process. 

Q: What do you see as the primary issues for USL players over the next several years in terms of bargaining?

Connor: I think we’re very new to this process, as is the USL. Part of that is we’re still trying to figure out the various components of our voice and where we have common ground with the league. I won’t get into specifics, but I would say our intention is to find meaningful ways that we can impact the livelihood of players in the league and do so in such a fashion that it’s also beneficial to the league and makes it stronger and more sustainable and hopefully at the end of the day a better product on the field.

We do believe that USL is doing great things, but we want to see how we can make it the best league that it can possibly be."

Q: Do you have a vision for the future? What about your own involvement?

Connor: I think particularly on the players council one thing that we’ve all come back to is that this is really about the next generation of players. When we talked about what would be a successful movement, looking into the future, it’s something where the players union is working with the league to ensure that the USL is an attractive profession to a player that is coming up and that it keeps the player employed for as long as they want to play. I think for far too long in US soccer the ecosystems, particularly at lower levels, there have been talented players who left the game because it’s no longer economically viable. What we would like to do is work with the league to keep that talent in the sport and really push the overall level of US soccer.

Trey: Something that was circulating as we were in the education process was trying to get players to realize what the USLPA can do for not just the players themselves, but also for the league. We were very adamant that we are able to create a league and environment that one day, if our sons want to play, we would be proud for them to play in a league like this.  Not saying that right now we wouldn’t be proud, but just reiterating that we want to be able to make sure that this league is a league that players can seek to play in and not struggle, not one where they have to worry about making ends meet. As well as not worrying about the unknowns that are currently in the USL. I think that was where our main motivations were in thinking about building a house for the profession that everybody has chosen to be in. And to be able to build that house so that one day if our 18 or 20 year old boy was playing we would be able to be proud and confident in them performing in this league we call the USL.

Q: What does this mean to you personally?

Connor: On a personal level, I think this is something that all of us players are extremely proud of, for two primary reasons. One, from the very beginning this has been a player organized effort. The players have taken the lead and shown the initiative. This matters to us, not only to this generation of players, but we really want to pay it forward for that next generation of players. I think that’s something on a personal level that I am extremely proud of. Another thing I’m proud of is that this group has had the foresight and the patience to make sure that this movement has been framed in the right way and I think that’s illustrated by the fact that we’ve had a positive relationship with the league throughout this process, and we hope to keep it that way. I think that’s something that all of us players take pride in.

Trey: I'm also proud that our main motivation is just to come alongside and be a real benefit to the United States soccer ecosystem, and not do it with a hostile motivation but really do it in a peaceful manner. We want to come to the table with our counterparts of the USL and be able to see them eye-to-eye and see how we can truly make this a better place for the league to perform. We do believe that USL is doing great things, but we want to see how we can make it the best league that it can possibly be. 

The USLPA would like to extend their thanks to their player council who worked diligently towards this recognition. 

Players Council:                

  • Tommy Heinemann
  • Bilal Ducket 
  • Brad Ring 
  • Carl Harworth 
  • Cody Laurendi 
  • Nana Attakora 
  • Sam Fink 
  • Trey Mitchell 
  • Greg Jordan 
  • Aodhan Quinn 
  • Connor Tobin

You can follow the USLPA on Twitter and Instagram.