The MLS season might have ended with Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS Cup win in November, but the league has barely been out of the news since. From David Beckham’s decision to re-sign in LA to Montreal Impact joining the MLS ranks and 2012 SuperDraft, the off-season has flown by. Suddenly, the new campaign is less than a month away – and that means plenty of questions and answers are on the horizon.

Chief among the intriguing subplots is the effect that the string of short off-season loan deals will have on the season. Back in 2009, when Beckham engineered a loan move to AC Milan, the MLS must have feared that the deal would open the floodgates. Three years on, those fears have been confirmed.

This year, more MLS players inked loan deals to bridge the gap between January and March. New York Red Bulls talisman Thierry Henry headed back to North London to strengthen Arsenal’s push for a top four finish, Galaxy forward Landon Donovan began a second loan stint at Everton and team-mate Robbie Keane added to Aston Villa’s firepower. Omar Gonzalez, another LA man, joined Bundesliga outfit 1.FC Nurnberg and George John, of FC Dallas, moved to Championship high-flyers West Ham. And then of course there was Tim Ream’s permanent switch to Bolton Wanderers.

The flurry of activity has been met with a mixed response. Are these deals good or bad for the league?

On the one hand, the English Premier League – where the majority of the loan moves are taking place – is currently the most entertaining and competitive league in Europe. MLS players can only improve by training alongside seasoned pros like Everton’s Phil Neville or West Ham’s Kevin Nolan and top class talents like Robin van Persie. Plus, the very fact that English clubs are fighting to acquire MLS players, even on a short-term basis is unquestionably flattering.
Donovan has no doubts over the value of his time at Everton, particularly from a fitness standpoint. “I’m as fit as I’m going to get", insisted the American international. “It’s been good for confidence and good to play at this level. When I go back [to the MLS], the Galaxy will be in the third or fourth week of pre-season so I’ll be miles ahead of them. It’ll be good for Robbie [Keane] and I to already have our fitness under us.”

But there are also concerns that these loan deals reflect badly on the MLS – and cut away at the league’s credibility. Players are seeing a two-month spell playing abroad as a more attractive option than a pre-season with their own clubs – and it hardly builds morale when key figures are missing from preparations for the new campaign. Both Arsenal and Aston Villa even made unsuccessful late requests to extend the loan deals for Henry and Keane, respectively.

In those terms, the frustration is understandable. If it were a younger group of players testing themselves and developing their game overseas, a more compelling case could be presented. But Henry and Keane, in particular, do not have much left to learn. Instead, it is often a chance to add to their legacy, reconnect with old friends or ensure that their fitness levels do not slip. Either way, the MLS is hardly a winner in this scenario.
Then there is the injury risk involved – just ask Gonzalez, who suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury, and Galaxy manager Bruce Arena, who dealt with the same headaches when Beckham injured his Achilles in Milan in 2009. The MLS side have been left to pick up the pieces after an abrupt end to Gonzalez’s time in Germany and the defender will now spend months on the sidelines, forcing a major re-jig in the back four. Again, the MLS loses out.

Clearly, there are two sides to this argument and the jury is still out. But make no mistake: all eyes will be on this group of players as they walk out on the first weekend of the season. Are there signs of tiredness? Is the commitment still there? How sharp do they look? Will the time abroad contribute to MLS success? The answers lie ahead – roll on 10th March.

Photo courtesy: Greg Kowalski