Every year, it seems, MLS lessens the likelihood that a college player will make it onto a regular 18-man roster, and every year, someone comes out of nowhere at the Combine to earn a spot.
This year, the question is: Can anyone pull a John Cunliffe?
Cunliffe scored a goal and registered three assists at last year's showcase, and the native of Bolton, England, who went all the way to Durango, Colo., to play for Division II Fort Lewis College wound up taken seventh overall by Chivas USA in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft.
In retrospect, head coach Preki might have been better advised to take one of the talented forwards available in that draft -- Robbie Findley (nine goals for Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake) and Adam Cristman (four goals and four assists for New England) went in the second and fourth rounds, respectively -- he didn't have reinforcements late last season when injuries sidelined Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo.
But Cunliffe's amazing feat is just the latest example of why the Combine matters.
Not every Combine surprise turns out so well. Midfielder Luke Kreamelmeyer came to the 2005 Combine out of Bradley, and won MVP honors for his rugged, relentless play. Real Salt Lake picked him in the fourth round but he lasted less than two seasons and eventually found his way to the USL.
There's a sleeper of sorts in the 2008 adidas MLS Combine: forward Ricardo Pierre-Louis of Lee University, located in Cleveland, Tenn. He was named the 2007 NAIA National Player of the Year and played for Haiti last summer at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Our "player to watch" is a tricky forward out of Gonzaga: George Josten, a third-team NSCAA All-American named as the Men's National Scholar Athlete of the Year. With a 3.83 GPA in mechanical engineering, he probably doesn't need MLS, but he scored 34 goals at Gonzaga, which produced an all-time great late bloomer Brian Ching. Josten is not undersized, either, at 6-foot-1.
MLS announced Thursday it had signed nine Generation Adidas players to league contracts, and added those players to the rosters of four teams that will each play three games starting Saturday in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. It has also brought three South American players - two from Argentina, one from Uruguay - that have been selected through league scouting programs.
Broader opportunities for teams to sign foreign players could squeeze the collegians' prospects even tighter. The limit of eight internationals per team with no age restrictions isn't really a limit, since teams can trade for additional slots. Previously, teams could sign four senior (aged 25 and older) and three junior internationals. Few teams filled those seven slots.
But since the league has only increased the salary cap by $150,000 - to just under $2.25 million - most teams won't be able to load up with players signed from foreign clubs. Non-U.S. citizens coming out of college probably won't command big salaries right off the bat, so teams may be encouraged to sign more of them than in the past.
About one-fourth of the 67 Combine attendees would be classified as international players, including first-team NSCAA All-Americans Justin James (Connecticut/Trinidad & Tobago) and Patrick Nyarko (Virginia Tech/Ghana), a Generation Adidas signee. Second-teamer Andy Iro (UC Santa Barbara/England) is another player many MLS teams covet.
Most of the players on display are college seniors, yet the most heralded senior player -- Notre Dame forward Joseph Lapira -- won't be on hand. The 2006 Hermann Trophy winner from Louisiana has already proven what he can do -- he earned a cap for the Republic of Ireland last May. More importantly, he hasn't signed with MLS, leaving open the possibility that the best forward coming out might again elude MLS. (BC's Charlie Davies signed with Sweden's Hammarby last year.)
Combine matches will be played Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. Six U.S. under-23s who are training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton with head coach Peter Nowak will play on Sunday only: Julian Valentin and Pat Phelan (both Wake Forest), Sean Franklin (Cal State Northridge), Stephen King (Maryland), Chance Myers (UCLA) and Eric Avila (UCSB).