- - Thursday, March 5, 2015

As D.C. United’s players arrived at soggy RFK Stadium on Wednesday night, they knew their CONCACAF Champions League run was hanging in the balance. Those stakes paled in comparison to the battle being waged five miles down the road — not on a field, but in a Foggy Bottom conference room.

It was there that MLS owners and players union representatives trudged through a fourth consecutive day of negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement. With a potential strike looming, United’s MLS opener against the Montreal Impact on Saturday was in jeopardy.

Yet there was a sense of optimism in the D.C. locker room that a deal was near.

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Although the players didn’t find out until after Wednesday’s Champions League match was over, a new, five-year CBA had been agreed upon minutes before kickoff.

On the field, United didn’t do enough to advance to the Champions League semifinals. But the team did open its 2015 home slate with a 2-1 victory over Costa Rican club Alajuelense — offering some momentum ahead of an MLS season that will now go on as scheduled.

“Our guys were focused, and you could see it in the game,” midfielder Chris Rolfe said. “We showed up, we played well. We believed the season was going to continue.”

In addition to increases in the salary cap and league minimum, the CBA saw the players earn one benefit they’ve never enjoyed before: A form of free agency.

For the past 19 years, MLS clubs have typically retained the rights of players with expired contracts or declined options. Now, out-of-contract veterans who are at least 28 years old and have eight years of MLS service can reportedly become free agents.

Although it’s not the same freedom of movement afforded to athletes in North America’s more lucrative sports leagues, it’s a considerable step forward after owners initially balked at the idea of bidding against each other for players.
“It’s progress,” veteran Chris Pontius said. “The league is young in terms of everything in the grand scheme of things, so it’s a stepping stone.”

Wednesday night marked the end of a wearying stretch for United player representatives Rolfe and Bobby Boswell, who had to divide their attention between marathon CBA talks and the Champions League quarterfinals.

After a 5-2 loss at Alajuelense last week, United knew it was a long shot to advance in that two-game, total-goals series. United’s 6-4 aggregate defeat leaves Montreal as the lone MLS team remaining in the seven-year-old continental competition, which has seen a Mexican club crowned as champion every season.

“Looking at it optimistically, we got two competitive matches leading into our regular season,” Rolfe said. “A lot of teams didn’t get that opportunity, so I think that’s only going to help us going forward.”

A year ago, D.C. and Montreal found themselves on opposite ends of the Eastern Conference standings: United (17-9-8) secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, while the Impact (6-18-10) had the worst record in MLS.

An offseason overhaul, however, has paid early dividends for Montreal, which eliminated Mexican side Pachuca from the Champions League with a dramatic 1-1 draw Tuesday.

While United’s attentions had been divided among the Champions League, MLS preseason and CBA negotiations, those scattered priorities are now streamlined ahead of Saturday’s match against the Impact at RFK Stadium.

“Everything is ready to go now,” coach Ben Olsen said. “We can forget about all of that and have our full focus on the MLS season. You quickly put this to bed and move on to what we still expect to be a good season.

“It’s an absolute relief from, I think, everybody’s point of view.”

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