American exports remain low despite high profile loans

WITH Robbie Keane on the verge of lending his body to Aston Villa for medical research and Thierry Henry having made that memorable return to Arsenal, you would be forgiven for thinking that European clubs are stockpiling for the winter with US-based players.

I did a bit of asking around, approaching sportswriters and bloggers at the 19 Major League Soccer clubs, 16 of them got back to me. Outside the main high profile players, is there any trend upwards of players leaving on loan from January until the league restarts in March? From what I can gather, the MLS is nowhere near becoming a seasonal feeder organisation for European clubs.

While the LA Galaxy players are making waves for the loan deals they’ve signed, haven’t managed to sign or are about to sign despite earlier protestations to the contrary (I’m looking at you Mr Keane), most of the players are all dressed up but have nowhere to go.

Colorado Rapids, New England Revolution, Portland Timbers, the San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City are among those with no track record or look like having one in the near future.

What is interesting, however, is that it is becoming more common for US-based professionals to head to clubs in Europe for a bit of intensive pre-season training.

Toronto FC sent goalkeeper Stefan Frei to train with Liverpool for a couple of weeks, while last year Dwayne de Rosario spent a few weeks training with Celtic. Seattle Sounders have yet to loan players out but two of their better players went to Everton for training: Steve Zakuani and Osvaldo Alonso. Philadelphia Union’s Amobi Okugo recently trained in Germany and Freddy Adu is currently training in Spain.

But of course the loan deal is where the real fun is. Everton boss David Moyes was quick out of the blocks to snag back the services of Landon Donovan for two months after a successful stint at Goodison Park two seasons ago. He declined the offer last January, a decision influenced by his desire to focus on LA’s title run.

Which makes me wonder what has changed? Is this season less of a priority? When Keane says in November that he won’t be going anywhere in January because he wants to be well rested for Euro 2012 but then changes his mind and decides to chip in with Aston Villa’s bid for mid-table mediocrity, what’s the motivation? Are Donovan’s title aspirations less vital this year that he’ll risk injury in the faster paced Premier League? The success of the Galaxy side in winning the MLS Cup and thus attracting European suitors has already come back to haunt them: the league’s Defender of the Year, Omar Gonzalez, joined Bundesliga outfit Nürnberg on loan then severely injured his knee in his first training session, a challenge which ironically involved fellow American Timmy Chandler.

The New York Red Bulls are an interesting case study but, again, an exception to the rule. Matthew Conroy, who covers the New Jersey-based outfit, believes the number of players going abroad for either training stints or loans can be traced to US national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s call for players to seek European experience.

“This year we have four players who have gone abroad for one reason or another — Henry, Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo,” Conroy told me.

“Ream was on trial at West Brom and Bolton and is reportedly on the verge of a permanent move to Bolton. Agudelo trained in Germany with Stuttgart, and then spent a short time training at Liverpool, but there have not been any offers on the table for him. Marquez has returned to Barcelona to do some training there but it’s just to build fitness.”

The most interesting club in the league is FC Dallas which is beginning to reap the rewards of investment in a strong academy. Although it’s not a loan deal, they are on the verge of selling Washington State-born defender George John to West Ham. More intriguing is Brek Shea, who has been training with Arsenal, while Ruben Luna has visited Sporting Lisbon.

“It’s funny because all these ‘training’ stints are really just extended [trials] for later,” Dallas journalist Daniel Robertson told me. “Dallas is one of the bigger exporters in the league. We’re all bracing for the sale of Brek Shea in the next year or two for a figure that will likely push $10m [€7.8m].”

The stopgap measure provided by aging stars is an old habit all sports tend towards. But FC Dallas seem to have the wherewithal to look beyond risky loan deals to where the real money is.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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