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The curious case of Dairon Asprilla

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Why MLS teams could actually benefit from loaning players to one another

Dairon Asprilla converts a penalty kick in T2’s 3-1 win over Las Vegas Lights FC
Matthew Wolfe

There’s a log jam up front for the Portland Timbers.

The Timbers are a team lucky enough to have a talented core of attacking pieces and depth to boot. However, with Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse, Lucas Melano, Andy Polo, Brian Fernandez, and Dairon Asprilla all vying for the same four attacking positions in the lineup week in and week out, at least a few of them will be disappointed come each match day. One player who has been unable to crack the MLS 18-man roster lately is the wily forward, Dairon Asprilla.

Asprilla is an interesting case for the Timbers. At one end of the spectrum, he looks a level above T2 and the rest of the USL Championship. He’s quick to the ball, able to out muscle defenders, and is more technically sound than USL-level competition. He’s scored four of his six team-leading goals in the past three games, including this instinctual goal against the Real Monarchs a week ago:

On the other end, things begin to get much more complicated once you begin to discuss first-team production. In 3,735 regular season MLS minutes, Asprilla has just five goals, equivalent to one goal every 747 minutes. For comparison’s sake, that is the exact same amount of regular season goals that Lucas Melano has in his four years as a Timber. Asprilla has been known to come up big in the playoffs — last season’s second leg in Seattle being the latest example — but those regular season numbers go to show that Asprilla hasn’t exactly earned any playing time for the first team.

All of this puts Asprilla, a player who was brought in with relatively high expectations in 2015, into metaphorical limbo — too good for T2, but not good enough to have any minutes up-top in Gio Savarese’s team. The best-case scenario for the Columbian attacker might just be a loan to another MLS team.

An intra-league MLS loan would allow Asprilla to develop while getting vital MLS minutes for a team that would benefit from an extra attacker. An Eastern Conference team — such as Columbus Crew or FC Cincinnati (yes, that FC Cincinnati with Adi, Mattocks, and Powell) — could use a player like Asprilla and would certainly give him more opportunities than the Timbers.

However, all of that is impossible.

According to MLS rules, the maximum age for an intra-league loan is 24; Asprilla is 27. While the team could loan him outside of the league, it is unlikely that he will have any takers outside of MLS. The Timbers loaned him to Millonarios — a team in the Colombian league —from 2016 to 2017, but he only produced two goals in 16 games.

Intra-league loans were introduced in 2013, but are still a pretty controversial topic throughout the league to this day. For starters, if the Timbers were able to loan Asprilla to another MLS team, they would have no control over how the other team chooses to utilize and develop him. MLS is also an extremely competitive and well-balanced league, and no general manager really wants to give another team a leg up.

The hardest aspect may be, however, deciding on the market value of a player on loan. It was reported a year ago by The Athletic that even Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson is not a fan of intra-league loans because of the lack of an option to purchase the player. The thought process is simple: If a team developed a player that improved and grew into the culture of their program, why wouldn’t the team at least want the opportunity to keep the player around?

Asprilla fighting for the ball in the Timbers 2-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in last season’s U.S Open Cup
Bennett Dewan

Despite all this, it would not behoove MLS to continue without a viable option to loan players within the league. For other USL players who are on the bubble of their own teams, it would be beneficial for the league to keep them in America. Loans help develop players and — in the MLS 3.0 era, where the league wants to become more of a seller on the world stage — developing younger players at home is the name of the game.

A decision will have to be made sooner or later by MLS regarding expanding on intra-league loans. Until that day comes, Asprilla will continue banging in goals in the USL Championship until he receives another opportunity for first-team minutes, or perhaps just until when he is needed again most: in the 2019 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.