Football: MLS making progress, calls labour talks 'productive'

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Major League Soccer and the union representing its players are making progress in a last-ditch effort to reach a new labour deal on Wednesday and avoid a work stoppage two days before the 20th MLS season opens.

The two sides took a break from talks after a 5-1/2 hour session at the Washington offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation with plans to return to the table, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

"The conversations are productive and the fact that we are all working hard on the players side and league side is a positive sign," Garber told reporters.

"We are still here. That's not a bad sign, right?"

With the 20th MLS season scheduled to open on Friday, the negotiations are expected to go down to the wire as the two sides seek to craft a new five-year deal to replace the previous agreement which expired on Jan 31.

The main sticking point in the talks appears to be the players' demand for the introduction of free agency.

Players have threatened to strike if their hopes are not met.

"They're locked in a room trying to figure out a new collective bargaining agreement," Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports Media Group, an MLS broadcast partner, said at the Sports Business Summit in New York City on Wednesday.

"We get updates as frequently as they can get out of the room. I don't think there's any real news except that there's no deal - yet."

ESPN reported that there had been some movement towards an agreement on Tuesday with MLS offering free agency to players who are at least 28-years-old with eight years in the league.

The defending champion LA Galaxy are scheduled to open the season on Friday against the visiting Chicago Fire.

Among the scheduled games for Sunday, when the season begins in earnest, two MLS teams will make their debuts as New York City FC travel to Orlando City, who have sold 60,000 tickets for the clash at the Citrus Bowl.

"We're preparing as if we're kicking off at 5pm Sunday," Orlando's English coach Adrian Heath told the Orlando Sentinel.

DC United were due to face Costa Rican team Alajuelense later on Wednesday in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals and it was not clear if that game would be affected by any possible work stoppage.