By IVES GALARCEP
LAUDERHILL, Fla.– There was some predictable first-day rustiness, and nobody is going to be archiving the video of Friday’s matches for any how-to seminars, but there was still plenty for MLS scouts to chew on as they evaluate the talent pool.
What should be noted about the first day of any combine is that while you don’t want to be starting off with a poor first day, it isn’t the end of the world if you have one. Plenty of top MLS players have endured first-day struggles in the combine. From Nick DeLeon, to Darren Mattocks to Steve Zakuani to Omar Gonzalez. Those are just some of the players who had forgettable first days.
Friday’s opening matches of the 2013 MLS Combine weren’t outstanding, but there were some quality showings at a variety of positions. The Combine’s elite midfielders stole the show on Friday, while there were quite a few encouraging outings for the forward class.
The big winners on Friday? Young forward Kekuta Manneh excited scouts with his quickness and confidence for an 18-year old. Carlos Alvarez and John Stertzer also showed very well, while Andrew Farrell solidified his place as the top-rated prospect in the draft.
Here is a closer look at how the positions looked on Friday:
It’s tough to impress when you are basically playing one half, but some of the keepers in the Combine managed just that. Brad Stuver came on with his team down 3-0 and while he did give up a goal, he made some key stops. In fact, teammate Scott Goodwin did his best Brad Guzan impression in the first half, coming up with good plays even as his defense let in goals in bunches.
Overall though, none of the keepers had bad days, but then again none of them really blew anybody away with their performances.
There is no getting around the fact that right back is without question the weakest position in the draft. Few of the right backs stood out on Friday, and we were treated to several players being moved from their natural positions to fill the right back roles. Michael Bustamante is a midfielder by trade, but didn’t do too badly as a right back.
Andrew Farrell showed glimpses of why MLS scouts love him. He is a freak athlete, boasting speed, strength and outstanding jumping ability. He also isn’t afraid to handle the ball. Didn’t do anything to hurt his stock on Friday. If anything, he helped solidify his standing by displaying a humble yet confident personality.
Eric Schoenle had a bittersweet day. At times he flashed the technical quality that some scouts rave about, but then he was torched by Kekutah Manneh for a goal and struggled in the second half. He remains one of the top centerback options, but a weak showing on Sunday could begin to jeopardize his standing as the best senior centerback.
A pair of international college defenders caught my eye on Friday in big Hofstra centerback Shaun Foster and tall South Florida central defender Brenton Griffiths. The 6-foot-3 centerbacks showed good qualities, combining size with decent technical ability. The question is whether MLS teams will take either of them knowing they count as international players. Foster is also 24, not quite the age teams look for prospects to be.
It is well-documented (at least on SBI) that this year’s draft is heavy on good left back prospects. The group showed some quality on Friday, with John Gallagher and Greg Cochrane standing out.
Not everybody had a standout day. Taylor Kemp didn’t make the impact you would expect from the No. 1-rated left back in the pool, and if he doesn’t step it up on Sunday he just might lose that label.
RIGHT WING/RIGHT FORWARD
The overwhelming number of forwards invited to the Combine led to three of the four teams employing 4-3-3 formations. Erik Hurtado looked very comfortable as a wide forward. He dropped into midfield, connected passes, and showed a willingness to go at defenders.
Coleton Henning also played as a right forward, but spent too much time dropping into midfield.
Will Bates wound if deferring to Zavaleta as a target forward, but at some point in the Combine Bates will need to be given the chance to spear-head the attack as a target forward.
One of the real mysteries of this year’s rookie class was 18-year-old forward Kekuta Manneh and the young Generation adidas signing wasted no time showing why MLS felt it necessary to sign him.
Manneh impressed with his speed, mobility and intelligence. He toasted Eric Schoenle for a goal and also made good decisions within the structure of the attack. Teams that weren’t familiar with his qualities before the Combine are fully aware now and if Manneh has two more days like Friday, he could play his way into a Top Five spot in the draft.
If Manneh moves up, it could be at the expense of J.J. Johnson, who endured a terrible first day. Widely-regarded as the top forward in the draft entering the combine, Johnson struggled with his touch, movement and decision making. In short, he looked lost. He will need to step up his game considerably if he is going to avoid falling behind the likes of Manneh and Eriq Zavaleta on the draft board.
Another player who hurt their stock was Blake Smith, who just couldn’t get going playing more as a wide forward than a pure left winger.
Carlos Alvarez overcame a somewhat disappointing first half to step up and take over his team’s game. He registered a goal and assist and showed all the qualities that made him the top playmaker in the nation.
The number of box-to-box midfielders to show well on Friday was surprising. Dillon Powers, John Stertzer, Mikey Lopez and Kyle Bekker all helped their stock on a day where they weren’t met with much resistance.
One of the lesser-known players to impress on Friday was Alex Isern. The Winthrop midfielder fight right into the all-ACC midfield of Stertzer and Lopez and didn’t miss a beat.
Ian Christianson had a forgettable day, serving as part of a midfield that was flat-out overrun. He isn’t expected to be a first-round pick, but if Christianson doesn’t improve his game on Saturday he could wind up playing himself further down in the second round.
Zavaleta struggled to make his mark on Friday, in part because of his team’s midfield being ineffective in the first half and in part because of a formation that left him isolated against a familiar rival in Michigan centerback Kofi Opare.
The player who made the most of playing a target role was Chris Thomas, who showed mobility, touch and vision. He held the ball up well, and also made the right decisions when it came time to pass the ball.
Deshorn Brown had a forgettable day, but you can chalk that up to the fact he was facing Andrew Farrell, and because his midfield was largely ineffective.
Ashton Bennett faired better than his fellow Jamaican counterparts.
Charlie Rugg was a late addition to the Combine and made the most of his chances, drawing a dangerous free kick before finishing off his own chance. The Boston College forward put together a solid Friday that should give him something to build on.
Devon Sandoval came into the Combine being called the next Steven Lenhart, but he struggled to finish chances and didn’t look all that sharp, though he gets points for being involved in the attack. He will need to do better in the remainder of the Combine to ensure himself a place in the first two rounds of the MLS Draft.
MLS COMBINE DAY ONE BEST XI
–Kekutah-Manneh—-Chris Thomas——–Erik Hurtado—-
—-John Stertzer——Carlos-Alvarez——–Dillon Powers–
Greg Cochrane———-Andrew Farrell—–Shaun Foster—-
HONORABLE MENTION- James Belshaw, Kofi Opare, Brenton Griffiths, Mikey Lopez, Don Anding, Emery Welshman, Charlie Rugg, Luke Spencer.