MLS: What Offseason?

Just about any MLS head coach or assistant coach will respond to a question about the offseason succinctly by saying: "What offseason?"

The end of competitive play for players, marked by the last regular-season game or playoff elimination or appearance in MLS Cup, means the start of a second season for the coaches, general managers, technical directors and other team executives: the holiday shopping season, during which myriad players are examined, selected and exchanged.

November might mean college tournaments or a quick trip abroad to scout for talent. In December, most coaches are at the NCAA College Cup to look for players and discuss deals. They have to be ramped up by the second week of January to attend the MLS Combine and MLS SuperDraft, after which they have only two weeks before the start of preseason training camp.

"I've been probably to five or six UCLA games," says Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, who formerly coached D.C. United and Red Bull New York and took over from Ruud Gullit in August. "I was at the NCAA final four. I took a trip or two away from LA to look at a few players. We've sent our staff out to watch games. We put a fair amount of time into the process. With our coaches and [director of soccer] Paul Bravo, we have enough people out there watching games."

As the U.S. national team coach, Bob Bradley keeps tabs on dozens of players scattered throughout several countries. He watches games on TV and the computer and gets DVDs, yet, harkening back to his days coaching in MLS with D.C. United, Chicago, the MetroStars and Chivas USA, often reserves his final judgment on first-hand observation.

"I always want to see as many players as I can myself," says Bradley. "Everybody relies on a network of people, whether it's a scouting staff like we have at U.S. Soccer these days, or relying on the people you know to try to get a read on things. But the idea of seeing a player yourself is very important. I think most coaches will tell you that."

OVER THERE. San Jose head coach Frank Yallop and general manager John Doyle both left town for very different foreign destinations. While Yallop took the MLS Select/Generation adidas team to England to play three games against reserve teams, Doyle headed to Jamaica to watch the semifinals and finals of the Digicel Caribbean Championship. They met up in London to meet officials of Tottenham Hotspur, which has formed a partnership with the MLS club.

They skipped the College Cup, having already attended the Big 10, Big East and ACC tournaments, as well as games at local Division I schools, which include Cal, Stanford, Santa Clara, San Francisco, St. Mary's, San Jose State, and UC Davis. They also hopped across the Nevada border to attend games at UNLV.

"We try to watch a player more than once, to get a feel for what he can do," says Doyle, who played his college ball at USF and is also director of a youth club, the Mustangs. "The tournaments let you see a lot of players in competitive games in a few days and through the coaches and the games we keep a pretty close watch on the guys in our area.

"Here are examples," says Doyle. "[California forward] Andrew Weideman played at my club. I've seen Andrew Weideman play since he was a kid. Andrew Weideman I get to see play twice a week. I've seen him in youth and watched him develop. That's our process. Is it perfect? No, but it's our process.

"[Santa Clara defender] Jalil Anibaba, I saw him as a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old [in nearby Davis], and now I'm watching him in college. Our paths have crossed so many times. There is an evaluation going on. It's not organized, but in America, we've kind of figured out how to do it."

Revs head coach Steve Nicol and his staff found time during the 2007 season to notice the Gambian team competing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada included some pretty good players. New England arranged to bring Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally into camp for a closer look after the tournament concluded, and eventually signed both to MLS contracts.

"You've got to keep your eyes open," said Nicol, who since taking over the Revs in 2002 has spearheaded a shrewd record of collegiate selections as well as a fairly exotic list of international players. "We're always on the lookout for players who can make our team better, and you can find them almost anywhere."

Since most coaches, their assistants, GMs, and technical directors also scout during the season itself, coaching in MLS is not for the lazy. The day before D.C. United played a road game against the Quakes in early September, three coaches traveling with the team - head coach Tom Soehn, assistant Chad Ashton, and goalkeeper coach Mark Simpson - were in Berkeley to watch a doubleheader hosted by California.

"Usually we split it up, though Chad does a lot of the domestic scouting," said Soehn of Ashton, a former all-ACC midfielder at North Carolina who was head coach at the University of Denver for 10 years. "Between the three of us and [technical director] Dave Kasper, we watch a lot of games, that's for sure."

D.C. has been the most aggressive MLS team recently in finding South American players, yet Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and a few other clubs have followed that path. The expanded options for international players - each team is allotted eight spots, which teams can also trade - have been used in some cases on foreign players coming out of American colleges, as in the case of Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares, who played at VCU and now stars for Chicago.

Most teams, though, are using the slots to bring in players from abroad, which would seem to lessen any de-pendence on players in college or the USL. Yet the limited salary cap ensures teams must find capable players in their own backyard, and that can take a lot of leg work.

"In our situation we have a number of slots available and hopefully we can use a few of those slots to make our team better," says Arena. "They can be used in a lot of ways, but I would doubt we'd use many of them on college players.

"I think obviously there's still a value in the SuperDraft and still a value identifying players in the USL. It's obvious there have been a lot of players out of the USL who have done a good job in MLS. Those are both good areas to build your roster."

(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)  

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