US Soccer Players writer Jason Davis looks at the realities of loaning players from Major League Soccer to English clubs during the MLS off season. How does this benefit the League, what is the impact on the player, and what does the pressure for loan deals really say about Major League Soccer?
By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 29, 2010) US Soccer Players — A number of possible loan deals are the talk of the MLS off-season. Blame the Los Angeles Galaxy for establishing the idea that an elite player might not be starting the season with his MLS club. Add to that the League's schedule that leaves players idle when European teams are most desperate for, and allowed to obtain, mid-season reinforcements. Blame the way the soccer winds blow from West to East across the Atlantic.
Names like Beckham, Donovan, Buddle, and Cummings – some of Major League Soccer’s biggest stars – have been linked to temporary moves abroad. The door has been swung open, if not kicked down. English clubs specifically are on the hunt for MLS rentals. What are trials and training stints now might be MLS players on working vacations very soon.
For the players, loans offer the opportunity to challenge themselves, to play in a soccer-mad country and experience everything that means. For MLS clubs and their fans, the benefits are less tangible, perhaps nonexistent.
As expected, the loan banter surrounds some of the League’s best players. It’s not just about injury – loans during what is supposed to be the few months of rest players get can only hasten fatigue on their return to North America and the necessary headfirst dive into the domestic schedule.
The MLS season, especially in 2011 with an increase in games to 34 in a short window, is a grueling marathon. Summer heat wilts the best of teams, and depth around the League is not yet substantial enough to mitigate its effect. Coaches are forced to consider resting their front line players in the dog days of August and September to save them for the stretch run and the playoffs. In the vernacular of the marketers, the MLS product naturally suffers. No offense to players without loan possibilities, but they are not the ones the fans pay to see.
When David Beckham took his talents to Milan two years ago, he did so with a goal in mind – keeping his name in the conversation for the England National Team. What was meant to be a short stay with the Rossneri that would have him back in LA for the start of the MLS season became an extended run through the end of the Serie A schedule.
Beckham did return to the Galaxy in time to lend a hand in their run to the MLS Cup Final, but only after taking a needed break directly in the middle of LA’s summer calendar. The Galaxy didn’t get out of Beckham what they had hoped. Not because he wasn’t capable, but because he wasn’t available. The Winter loan dictated that although Beckham was contracted to LA to play for them in Major League Soccer, he was only really half theirs.
Little needs to be said about Beckham’s 2010 return to Milan and the injury he suffered there. Playing that much soccer on two continents has inherent risks. The Galaxy again lost Beckham for much of the MLS campaign, and though the reason was different, the reality was the same. Winter loans push the limits of player endurance.
Landon Donovan's experience was different. He factored heavily in a run of form for Everton. So much so in fact that there were loud calls for the club to keep him permanently. He didn't obligate himself for the rest of the season, returning to MLS for the start of the season and in form for the Galaxy and the US National Team. Yet it was Donovan opting out of a similar loan move for this off-season. The reason he gave was simple: 'rest and recovery.'
It's an important point for an elite MLS player to make. Like 2010 with the World Cup, 2011 will bring its own rash of international absences. The Gold Cup is set for the summer and MLS teams will lose their CONCACAF stars for almost a month in some cases.
The League won’t take a break as they did with the 2010 World Cup group stage, meaning the period without these name players will last longer, be more noticeable, and have a larger influence on how the League shakes out in the end. If any of those players participating in the regional championship also happen to have been out on loan to start the calendar year, energy reserves will be drying up by the time July rolls around.
Their eyes peeled for bargains, English clubs are adding pressure to the MLS off-season. Winter loans of any kind will have a ripple effect on the MLS season to follow.
MLS has a growing problem on its hands. Players want to spread their wings prove to themselves that they can play in the more traditional soccer environment of England. The League’s calendar leaves ample opportunity for agents and stars to shop around. With clubs abroad suddenly willing to consider an MLS player on loan, connections are bound to be made.
But there's an argument that loans stretch the League’s best talent, threaten to weaken the quality of play down the road, and give the impression that MLS players would rather be somewhere else. Even if that last bit is sometimes true, it’s not the type of image the League should want to project.
With that in mind, Winter loans might be more than innocent sojourns to the Old Country for a chance at playing some big time English soccer. It's at least something worth formalizing before the expectation for an elite MLS player is that they'll likely be spending their off-season or longer with another club. In that regard, blame the League for not creating guidelines that would apply to all MLS players the first time an elite talent pushed for a loan deal.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/davisjsn.