The MLS looks set to draft in replacement referees for the opening matches of its season this weekend as a wages dispute between the league and the referees union over payment looks increasingly unlikely to be resolved before kick off and the referees committed to carrying out their threat of strike action.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said on a fan forum on Twitter yesterday that the league would go ahead as scheduled.
"We are absolutely inposition to have a contingency plan in the event those discussions don't end positively," said Garber.
"Nothing is going to stop us from having a strong opening."
It has been reported in the US that the MLS held a camp last week to train potential replacement officials. If there is no resolution in the dispute with the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) then the MLS will bring in their replacements.
The PSRA represents 20 full-time officials and 56 part-timers. They work through the Professional Referee Organisation (PRO), which manages game officials for the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS.
PRO and the PSRA have been in negotiation over a new collective bargaining agreement since last year but the talks have become increasingly difficult with PSRA vice president Steve Taylor saying that PRO have threatened a lock-out.
US match officials are paid on a game-by-game basis, but talks have become increasingly contentious in recent weeks. The PSRA has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over what it alleges are unfair working practices.
PSRA alleges that PRO failed to bargain in good faith, and even changed their own position mid-negotiation by taking tentative agreements off the table. PSRA also claims that at a February 1 training camp held in Florida, a member of PRO management threatened upwards of 10 referees with reprisals if they continued to engage in union activities, reported ESPN.
Taylor told ESPN that among the items still being negotiated are payment for games, compensation insurance in case of injury, performance standards and evaluation, fitness and fitness testing, and travel standards.
PRO has said that it didn't have the money to meet the PSRA's demands, though Taylor maintains that MLS Executive Vice President Todd Durbin has said the money was available, but MLS and PRO didn't want to pay it to the referees.
So far the two sides have held 25 meetings but neither side appears willing to compromise. The MLS is no in its 19th season and opens with seven games on Saturday and one on Sunday.