By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (Feb 17, 2012) US Soccer Players -- If you're an American soccer fan, we can add the debate about the Major League Soccer schedule to a list of absolutes that includes items like single-entity and the quality of officiating. Fans and pundits alike want to offer critiques, alternatives, and defenses. It's the MLS version of a hot stove league, filling the offseason months with something to talk about. As 2011 moved into 2012, it was the schedule taking priority in MLS.
Some believe a move to the traditional European calendar would lend legitimacy to the League and give a boost to player fitness. Others don't understand why any North American sports league thinks it needs to schedule for so many months out of the year. MLS triggered even more debate and conversation by announcing they would start in March and end in December, leaving only January and February without an MLS game that counts. It's still not the August-to-May standard of Europe, but it's a lot of soccer spread out over the longest schedule in North American professional team sports.
If the first few weeks of 2012 have taught us anything about MLS, it's that there's a benefit to not aligning the calendar with the European big leagues. The slight discord allows for short-term loan deals for MLS players looking for options in January and February. With the League sending Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, and Robbie Keane to the Premier League, they demonstrated that the designated player level easily translates. All three found success, making immediate impacts for clubs that are supposed to be world's away from the summer grind of Major League Soccer. All three made the kind of impression that left the Premier League clubs and fans wanting more.
That's a cross-Atlantic benefit that could become a regular part of the MLS development plan. We're talking about some of the best players the League has to offer, but it strengthens a view that MLS is capable of producing multiple elite players not just a select few. It also shows that established pros deciding to play their club soccer in North America aren't taking a dramatic step down in quality.
It's a change in perception, working against those old ideas of players taking a retirement tour of North American pro soccer. MLS has used the designated player rule not only to show that aging European talent can still contribute, they've also shown how quickly MLS clubs will move when players don't. It's about quality, something MLS has done significant work on in recent years.
Giving top players as well as the up-and-coming ones a chance to experience the highest level of competition is without a doubt beneficial. Playing with an English Premier League club is different from playing against them in a summer friendly. A player learning how his game might translate is invaluable both for the player and for his teammates when he returns to Major League Soccer.
And it's here where the MLS season is a plus. Those short stint loans don't interfere with the regular season at all. They also don't conflict with the CONCACAF Champions League. Few MLS coaches would be excited about losing a player when the games count, something that's completely understandable. But that unaligned schedule creates what amounts to two months of intensive experience that isn't likely to be replicated in MLS. This advantage alleviates most of the negatives of loans.
There's also the shop window aspect, moving players from a list of potential prospects to proven commodities. The MLS stars with designated player contracts are already in that proven category, but short-term loans can turn a prospect into a safe bet. Those emerging players get to see things firsthand, especially when they're brought in on a formal loan rather than just for training.
Yes, it’s only two months and the highlights involve players that surprise very few with their standout performances. Two months in the Premier League is more than enough to make a difference, something Donovan showed as the spark for a revitalized Everton. They benefitted financially as well, getting a shot of talent to keep them afloat in the table without breaking the bank.
There is, of course, a downside. Risk of injury. David Beckham and Omar Gonzalez are testaments of how horribly wrong a loan could turn out. These sort of problems could give pause to coaches and front offices around the League. It’s a disruptive situation that forces coaches to look for a solution to a problem they didn't directly create. It's one thing to lose a player when he's wearing your shirt, quite another when he was loaned out to a foreign club. In some cases, there are no solutions and a season full of potential might suddenly be in flux.
Even with that in mind, there's so much to gain for players taking advantage of short-term loans. It gives teams a shop window to display talent for possible future transfers, it gives players a good look at a level of play they can learn from, and it gives the league a good name because it’s producing talent that is ready for a top flight league.
Done correctly, MLS has the opportunity to turn what so many consider a flaw into a benefit. If 2012 becomes the foundation for expanding these loans in the future, it could work to reshape the landscape of quality in Major League Soccer home and abroad.
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