There was a time not so long ago that MLS was dead-set against allowing its players to go abroad on loans. The reasoning seemed pretty straightforward: Why should they allow their players to risk injury, while auditioning for another team?
That started to change a few years ago, as more established players started to join. David Beckham went on loan to AC Milan a couple times. Landon Donovan went to Bayern Munich and then had a couple encouraging stints at Everton. Thierry Henry was allowed to rejoin Arsenal for a spell, where he provided a few memorable highlights.
For the most part, though, these were opportunities afforded only to veteran players, who basically wanted a chance to prove to the world that they were still "got it." It was also an opportunity for MLS to showcase some of its marquee players and prove that it's not just a retirement league.
What is happening with increasing regularity, especially this offseason, is something different. Younger players like Andy Najar (FSC Anderlecht), Zach Pfeffer (Hoffenheim) and Fredy Montero (Millonarios) are going on loan, while others like Graham Zusi (West Ham United) are going on extended trials. Last year, it was George John (West Ham) and Omar Gonzalez (Nurnberg) going on loan. That speaks nothing of the numerous "training" stints that various players go on in Europe.
There's some upside to these kinds of moves, to be sure. Young players are, of course, impressionable and many of them speak highly of what they learn during their time abroad. It's entirely possible that someone like Najar could spend a few weeks with Anderlecth, a club that is currently sitting atop the Belgian Jupiler League. Pfeffer, who is unlikely to break into the Philadelphia Union's regular rotation anytime soon, is probably well served to get some real playing time, even if it's mostly with Hoffenheim's reserves.
In the case of Najar, at least, the expectation is that he'll be back in time for the MLS campaign. But that's a bit of a double-edged sword.
It's exactly that kind of loan that has burned MLS before, and it might not be such a smart idea to be getting into the business of sending players away like this.
Whether it was Beckham suffering a torn Achilles' tendon while on loan to AC Milan in 2010 or Gonzalez tearing his ACL, there are definitely risks involved. Even in cases where the players avoid injury, there's the very real risk that they will suffer later in the year after essentially skipping the offseason. Donovan going on loan during three straight MLS offseasons seems to have contributed to the burnout he's suffering from now, for instance. As tempting it is to think of these players as well-oiled machines, they need mental rest as much as anyone else.
The upside is also pretty limited. Can we honestly say that any player that went on loan has come back a better player? Donovan, Henry and Beckham really seemed intent on proving points. They were very good players before they went on loan and didn't seem any different after they returned. Gonzalez was coming off a Defender of the Year campaign when he went to Germany. John's trajectory seemed pointed straight up before his loan, but he's never quite regained that status since returning.
I can't blame the fan of any team for being at least a little worried. United fans don't necessarily stand to gain by seeing Najar play in Belgium, after all, and unless there's a significant loan fee, the team doesn't stand to gain at all.
But maybe those risks are just inherently part of an improving league. The last time MLS fans saw Najar, for instance, he was acting like a petulant child and being ejected from a playoff game for throwing the ball at the referee. In a different way, as good as Montero has been he seems to have plateaued a little. Both could probably benefit from being pushed a little outside their comfort zones.
Considering there are still those that believe MLS is nothing more than a league of has-beens and never-weres, it's probably a good idea to take some opportunities to show them that's not the case.