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Combine flawed but still vital
by Ridge Mahoney, January 9th, 2009 8:47AM
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[MLS] If so many MLS coaches spend so much of their time scouting college players, why do they all show up at the MLS Combine, which begins Saturday in Fort Lauderdale? Well, every year, a Chris Rolfe (University of Dayton) or Geoff Cameron (Rhode Island) is on display and turns out to be pretty good. There might be a junior college kid (Pasadena CC) like current Kansas City Wizard forward Yura Movsisyan, and there will certainly be a slew of seniors who've played for top-notch programs like Maryland, Indiana, Wake Forest, UCLA, etc. Even if you've seen a team play a game or two, you can't always get a good read on everybody.

One of the Generation adidas boys is midfielder Daniel Cruz of UNLV, who gave MLS coaches a great reason - as if one is needed - to visit Las Vegas. Strangely, the league coaches located out west who admitted scouting UNLV took trips to Nevada rather than wait for the Rebels to play nearby.

But regardless of 2008 travel schedules, the 2009 itinerary begins in Florida.

More than 70 players will be on display, including Cruz and eight others who have signed Generation adidas contracts. Some coaches, including Curt Onalfo of Kansas City, acknowledge that there's always the chance to find someone out of the blue, but they're also looking, in a way, for negative feedback.

"That's just as much a part of the process as seeing things you like," he says. "If you haven't made your mind up what you see at the Combine could push you one way or the other."

Like in most seasons, the Combine won't have a few of the top college players, such as Marcus Tracy (Maryland) and Mike Grella (Duke). They have so far rebuffed MLS efforts to sign them, though at the SuperDraft, teams are free to pick players whether they've signed MLS contracts or not.

Thus teams must also weigh their needs of players bound to MLS against the risk of perhaps wasting a pick on a player destined to go overseas. Ergo, the Combine gives coaches a chance to beef up their data on players they might need to consider in case other plans go awry because of trades, a player's change of mind, etc.

The flaws of the Combine are glaring and many. Players forced out of position or shoehorned into hybrid systems who are playing games on back-to-back days can't possibly produce their best, at least not consistently. Yet for coaches who have seen them with their college teams, trying something different is a good test of their adaptability and determination.

"I like to see if a player can do reasonably well in those situations," Revs coach Steve Nicol said. "Let's face it, with the salary cap and all the other things we have to deal with, we're always looking for versatile players. That kind of adversity can tell you a lot. Does he get on with it and do the best he can or does he hide or get frustrated?"

As in any open market or bazaar, a great deal of discussion, argument, and outright haggling takes place. By the time the coaches and team officials head to St. Louis, many of the deals that to be consummated at the SuperDraft have already been finalized.

With three picks in the first round, Toronto FC head coach John Carver and TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston will be popular fellas in Florida. So, too, will D.C. United coach Tom Soehn (No. 6 and No. 7 overall), and Sigi Schmid, holder of the No. 1 pick allotted to expansion club Seattle Sounders FC.

Even weather can intervene. Heavy rains forced the 2005 Combine at Home Depot Center to be staged on sodden synthetic surfaces. Maybe that blurred the vision or judgment of those on hand, for they selected hard-working but extremely limited midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer as Combine MVP. He lasted about a season and half at Real Salt Lake.

The Combine can also embarrass an assistant coach or technical director who returned from scouting a player during the college season raving about his ability, only to see him stumble and bumble as colleagues and counterparts shake their heads. Like a reference on a resume, a strong player recommendation isn't to be listed lightly.

A lot of coaches have justified a fizzled pick with, "He had a great Combine." By the time play concludes late Tuesday afternoon, some critical decisions - good and bad - will have been made.


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