In 2013, there were 69 loans involving Major League Soccer players, but the system still sits largely in the shadows. In fact, this past MLS season was the first year intra-league loans were an option for MLS clubs, but not a single club took advantage of such an arrangement.
On the other hand, in many other leagues around the world, these types of loan deals are common. This season in the English Premier League, Tim Howard’s Everton has made quite the splash, competing for a top-four spot, in large part due to the contributions of loan signings Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry—both from other EPL clubs.
With the league growing each year and the MLS academy system starting to produce some real results, the loan system should be a more integral part of league business.
The Success Stories
While high-profile loans remain uncommon in MLS, the 2013 season did see a number of positive examples coming from loans to and from other leagues.
The Portland Timbers' remarkable turnaround this past season was due, in part, to the fantastic play of loan-signing Diego Valeri. In 2013, Valeri contributed 10 goals and 13 assists to the Timbers offense in the regular season, making him a part of 43 percent of the Timbers’ offense. Realizing how important Valeri had become to their success, they signed him to a permanent deal in August.
Another success story in 2013 was Dom Dwyer. Dwyer, who was drafted by Sporting KC in 2012, was loaned to Orlando City in the USL PRO division early in 2013. Dwyer admits he was not happy with the decision, but with Orlando, he scored 15 goals in 13 games and won the league championship.
In fact, his loan was so successful that upon returning to Sporting, Dwyer pushed designated player Claudio Bieler out of the starting XI. Dwyer credited the loan for helping turn his season around, saying that the third-tier league was better preparation than what he had been seeing in MLS’ reserve league:
The Reserve League, guys are competitors and they want to win. But after the game, a lot of guys shrug their shoulders. In the USL, guys want to win every game. It’s the be-all and end-all for most of the guys. That’s how Orlando made me feel, and they made me hungry for it, too.
The other major success of 2013 was Chris Klute. Klute started with the Atlanta Silverbacks Reserve side, playing games in an amateur league. He was eventually promoted to the Silverbacks' first team, which competes in the North American Soccer League. In late 2012, he went on loan to the Colorado Rapids on a one-year deal.
With Colorado, Klute became so important to the club’s success in 2013 that they signed him permanently. He ended up becoming one of the league leaders in assists, despite playing as a left-back, and even earned a call-up to the United States men’s national team for this year’s January camp.
Off-Season Loans and the USMNT January Camp
In addition to in-season loans between MLS and lower-tier American sides, many MLS players have taken advantage of off-season loans to Europe.
Landon Donovan has had two successful loans stints with Everton (and one unsuccessful one with Bayern Munich) and Clint Dempsey is currently on loan with Fulham.
Some loans have been less successful, such as Omar Gonzalez’ loan to Nurnberg in 2012 (Gonzalez tore his ACL in his first training session with the club). MLS fans will also not be keen to remember the loan stints of David Beckham, which forced him to miss half of the 2009 MLS season and most of the 2010 season.
Many other players have also used MLS’ off-season break to train abroad, but for American players, there is also the possibility of training with the USMNT in January.
Because of MLS’ unique schedule, the U.S. has traditionally used the winter break to get in an extra international camp. In non-World Cup years, many U.S. players have been given the freedom to skip the camp and go abroad, but this year, Clint Dempsey is the only top American player who went abroad—the rest are in camp with the national team.
Room for Improvement
While 17 of MLS’ 19 clubs took advantage of at least one loan deal in 2013 (the Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls were the lone exceptions), there is still more that can be done.
There was not a single club that took advantage of the intra-club loan availability in 2013 and the league’s May 6 deadline likely contributed to that fact. Most clubs have only played a handful of games by that point in the season and have no clear idea of their needs (loans coming in) or their excesses (loans going out).
The system is also only currently set up for players under the age of 24. While that seems a perfect way to get more MLS youngsters valuable experience, it is a fairly limited age restriction, especially considering many MLS players still come through the college system and are 22-23 years of age when they enter the league.
There is also some danger in the current system, as not only are there age limitations and an early deadline, but loans cannot be recalled until after the season ends. The lack of recall provisions might make some clubs gun-shy about loaning out players to other MLS clubs, especially if they fear they may need that player later on.
MLS typically moves slowly when it comes to change, but it seems a natural progression to eventually lift all three of these restrictions and make the intra-league loan process easier. As MLS continues to progress, loans should become a more prominent part of everyday business. It promotes player development, helps keep the league strong overall and promotes a more competitive environment.
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