By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 11, 2016) US Soccer Players – The January transfer window officially opened at midnight on January 2 in England and two days later in most of Europe. This month-long period gives clubs the chance to touchup rosters ahead of the start to the second half of the European club season, replace a player or two who has been injured or grab that midfielder who may have gotten away over the summer.
There was a time when MLS players loved to go abroad during the off season and play in Europe. While Major League Soccer lay dormant for much of the winter, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Thierry Henry jetted off to play in some of the world’s most competitive leagues following a very intense, often grueling eight-month season.
Those were the days when foreigners didn’t think twice about saying yes to such requests. American players were equally eager, using it as another chance to gain experience and prove themselves against some of the best in the globe. Times have changed. This winter, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and others have forgone loan spells. Instead, they have opted to either take the time off, or train with their respective teams early. Maybe, it’s because these players are already up in age. By not going out on loan, however, Gerrard, Lampard, and Pirlo will all be with their teams for the start of the season.
“It doesn’t happen as much as it used to and I don’t believe we are going to see many off season loans happening in our league,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told reporters last September, “particularly at what I would call the high-level Designated Players. It’s been a couple of years since that last happened.”
Indeed, there was a time when that was rarely the case for a Designated Player. The Los Angeles Galaxy, always loaded with stars, regularly loaned out players. At the time, English clubs were particularly interested in these temporary situations. MLS can be a grueling marathon of games, played in hot temperatures and not always on the best fields. That tires a player out and makes them more injury-prone. Players were not always thinking of their MLS teams when they went out on loan. Beckham famously joined AC Milan just so he could remain relevant in Europe and maintain a spot on England’s National Team. Instead of returning in March for the start of MLS, during both winter loan tours in Italy Beckham extended his stay through May to coincide with the end of the Serie A season.
Garber said Beckham’s move had puzzled many American sports fans. “People in our country said, ‘What? He plays for two teams? And you’re trying to build a sport?’ It was a challenge getting people to understand that (at the time),” he said.
In 2010, Beckham even injured himself while in Italy and the Galaxy only had him for part of the time. That same year, Donovan went on loan to Everton and had a successful go at it. Everton wanted Donovan to make the switch permanently, but instead he returned to MLS in time for the start of the season. This year, Gerrard was reportedly contemplating a move back to Liverpool, but the league and Galaxy made it clear it was not something they wanted. The reality also is that Liverpool didn’t seem to be begging the midfielder to return after two decades with the club.
This January transfer window may still yield a big-name player signing by an MLS team, but it’s still more likely that a player already in the league goes to Europe this winter. While Garber has been right about a stream of star players not going to Europe on loan, there are still some players who have opted for a temporary move. Two weeks ago, English Championship side Brighton signed a loan deal with Portland Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell. The Englishman had joined the Timbers in 2014 from West Bromwich.
Last season, the Timbers captain had a winter loan spell at Wigan Athletic. While a move by Ridgewell doesn’t generate the headlines if Gerrard had gone on loan, the reality of MLS is that the Timbers star is a much bigger loss for his team and the league. Players like Ridgewell have helped teams in MLS win games and the title in 2015, not big-name stars like Gerrard. However, Ridgwell is expected to return stateside Feb. 21.
“Similar to last year, Liam expressed an interest in staying in the UK on a short-term loan to maintain his fitness and to stay sharp leading into the upcoming MLS season,” said Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson in a statement. “We feel that this loan works well for all parties involved and we look forward to having Liam rejoin the group towards the end of preseason.”
Timbers coach Caleb Porter argued in favor of the loan deal, saying Ridgwell had gained “valuable experience” with Wigan, but noted that the players’ return date is what makes the spell palatable for the defending MLS champions. “It was also important to have the loan end before our preseason tournament like last year so we have time to plug Liam back in before our first match,” he said.
While MLS has said it is not interested in adopting the same calendar as Europe, it leaves itself open to the possibility that teams from across the Atlantic could come knocking every January. They are just knocking a lot less these days.
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