Commentary

My advice for the MLS Combine: Don't hug the sideline

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Soccer tryouts, like the adidas MLS Player Combine that runs through Tuesday in Ft. Lauderdale, aren't unique. We've all gone through the paces of a tryout at one time or another.

In 10th grade, I went out for my high school JV soccer team. I tried out at right wing. My thinking was if I hugged the sideline, I'd be sure to catch the eye of our coach standing nearby. Bad idea. My only consolation was my high school required everyone to play a sport. I got to play on the JV "B" team.

A decade ago, our son, Paulie, decided to try out for soccer in the local youth league. Ten-yard lanes with cones were constructed, and 20 kids at a time tried to weave through the cones with a ball at their feet. Back and forth they went for what seemed like 15 minutes. Paulie decided to stick with baseball. Good thing: he's about to begin his sophomore season in college.

Elsewhere, tryouts are a little better organized. They might be at "centros de detección," as they call them in Mexico, or on "journées de détection," as French clubs advertise them.

Tryouts of the soccer greats have usually gone well.

When 13-year-old Lionel Messi arrived in Barcelona, they threw the tiny Argentine on the field against a bunch of bigger players. Barcelona official Carles Rexach walked only three-quarters around the sidelines before he decided he had seen enough.

Messi's father, Jorge, needed convincing that Barcelona was serious about signing his son before he uprooted his family and moved it from Rosario to Spain. Rexach invited Leo and Jorge for lunch at a local tennis club. All he could find was a napkin on which he scribbled out a contract agreeing to meet Jorge's demands.

When Waldemar de Brito took Pele to Santos for a tryout at the age of 16, the recruiter boasted, "This boy will be the greatest player in the world." Pele's talents were so dazzling that the other players stood and stared at him. The tryout was over.

Santos signed Pele, and the next year he led Brazil to its first World Cup championship.

But sometimes, first -- and second -- impressions aren't good. In the housing projects north of Marseille, Jean Varraud discovered a 15-year-old boy who, as he put, "had hands in place of feet."

Varraud brought coaches from nearby Cannes to check out Zinedine Zidane playing on his neighborhood team. Only problem was, Zidane's coach didn't get word that pro scouts would be watching. He played Zidane at sweeper, where he needed a fill-in, and Zidane showed nothing.

Zidane was later brought into Cannes for a tryout. He was given a week to show what he could do. All the coaches watching him did was point what he couldn't do. He wasn't good with his head. He needed more work in the fitness room.

Exasperated, Varraud pleaded with Cannes head coach Jean Fernandez to at least watch Zidane once. Fernandez agreed to walk over to an adjacent field where Zidane was training and watch for a minute. The first thing Zidane did was take a ball out of the air and gently play it off his chest to his feet. That's all Fernandez needed to see. Cannes signed Zizou.

There is, by all accounts, no Messi or Pele or Zidane among the dozens of players who'll be trying out at the MLS Combine. But all it might take is one piece of magic for a player to get his name called at next Thursday's SuperDraft.

And for everyone to heed my advice: don't hug the sideline.
9 comments about "My advice for the MLS Combine: Don't hug the sideline".
  1. Dan Allen, January 8, 2016 at 1:58 p.m.

    As usual, the article focuses on these "amazing" players at such a young age.
    I do not contest the abilities of Messi, Pele, Zidane; they are amazing players.
    But for every Messi, there are 100 Adu's.
    Players that grow early, dominate play and in the U.S. "get all the love".

    Meanwhile, the late bloomers have to either have incredibly supportive parents/coaches or incredible patience.
    At 17/18 years of age is when we start seeing a much truer comparison of talent.
    But....sadly...with the move to U12 Academy, all we've done is further isolate the late growers.

    Is this paradigm isolated to soccer? Of course not! It shows up in every youth sport in America.
    Why? Because paid "coaches" need to win now, unpaid coaches are untrained and parents cannot stay the heck out of it.
    That's a bad combination and it results in a bad experience for the player.

    Instead of early ID, we should focus on pure development and LATE ID!
    This creates a level playing field for every kid and ensures that every player finds their personal level of play; whether it be US National, D1 College, Club play or just out there enjoying the game.
    And who knows....maybe the USA will actually be truly relevant again in international soccer.

  2. Xavi Hernandez , January 8, 2016 at 2:06 p.m.

    I get a little sick to my stomach when I read articles about how kids are treated outside of the US. Our crazy skilled son gave up organized soccer at 14 because he was tired of hearing that while his skills were amazing he was too weak and too slow. He got an offer to trial at Gremio for two weeks at 18 but decided to go to college and picked up track. Runs a 49 second open 400m and a 1:53 open 800 as a sophomore - wish the English coaches could see him now.

  3. Ric Fonseca replied, January 8, 2016 at 2:26 p.m.

    Xavi, I completely empathize with you and sincerely appreciate your comment, but on the "other hand" what about the son that has very good skills, the requisite height and athleticism, and the will to compete, suffers a broken clavicle (perpetrated by one of his competitors from another team) excels enough to make the varsity as a freshman is invited to play up, and then is ignored by supposedly knowledgeable coaches in ODP and so called-"premier" clubs, but ends up playing in an all Latino team, but the team is ignored and the coach/manager accused of using over-age players (unfounded accusation proven by the league/state officials), and in college he is yet again ignored by the coach but is used as a "scout" player, or tries out, survives the two-a-day try out only to be the very last one cut because the coach tells him he is really looking for a forward although he tried out as a defensive player is not told. And know what, he's still playing, never has given up the sport that he grew up with, but like I said above I empathize and appreciate your comment, and I am glad your son is performing well and doing what he prefers and I wish him all the very best.

  4. beautiful game, January 8, 2016 at 2:49 p.m.

    X.H. & R.F., I sympathize with you both. How about a high school attacking player with solid technical skills, utilizes both feet (PKs included), good heading ability, sits mostly on the bench because the coach wants a physical hustler on the pitch. Meanwhile, that same player an a travel team scores 8 goals in 11 games from the sweeper position.

  5. John Polis, January 8, 2016 at 2:57 p.m.

    Great column, Paul. A lot captured there in a few short anecdotes.

  6. Xavi Hernandez , January 8, 2016 at 6:21 p.m.

    Thanks for the replies, I appreciate it. So much in soccer is based on opinion and can be endlessly argued; I have no doubt based on painful experience that everything you guys say is true, and there's probably a lot more. Times can't be argued and that's why I bring them up. For my son the very thing that caused him to be washed up before he even hit puberty (weak, slow, small) are what he excels in now. I'd like to see any of our "elite" players stay even close to him.. I can't imagine how many kids this happens to every year. Forget all the soccer coaching education, we'd improve with just a mandatory child development class. It's to the point that if your son has any athletic potential and/or aspirations at all it's best to steer them out of competitive soccer and just play pickup for fun.

  7. James Madison, January 8, 2016 at 7:41 p.m.

    Nice piece. Putting pad to the way we usually conduct youth tryouts without coming right out and saying they rarely constitute relevant tests.

  8. BJ Genovese, January 9, 2016 at 8:46 p.m.

    I symathize with you all about your past experience. My Son was told at u12 during the exit interviews at ID2 national camp that he was the best in the camp with the ball technically... but not physically. Needless to say he was not picked for the final squad to go on the overseas trip. And that seemed to echo most all situations after that. Always picked for the tryout or pool but never relied apun to "get the win". Now at 16 hes finally grown but I cant get him back to TC's because like you said.. . they ID kids in the US at 12-13 and thats about it. College coaches are a problem too. They seem to only be looking for physical specimens. So thats another problem that needs to be addressed.

  9. beautiful game, January 10, 2016 at 11:58 a.m.

    The USSF should read these comments. USSF been a disaster since day one and nothing is being accomplished with youth development. Until things change, a highly talented young player is better off at an academy in Europe, as was the case with Giuseppe Rossi.

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