Photo by MLS/Andy Mead
By FRANCO PANIZO
LAUDERHILL, Fla. – No matter how they perform at the MLS Player Combine, the players in this year’s Generation adidas class are safe bets to all be snagged in the first round when the MLS SuperDraft takes place on Thursday. They are hot commodities because they do not count against the salary cap, and are also widely considered among the more talented young players available.
As attractive as they might already be to MLS teams, the six players that entered the combine looking to impress coaches and improve their stocks are still looking to do just that. Few would argue against Louisville defender Andrew Farrell having done nothing but cement his status as the best player available in the draft, but for the five others there is still much to prove after enduring mixed performances through the first two days of the combine.
Indiana’s Eriq Zavaleta is one of those players looking to have a solid final day of the combine on Tuesday after making up for a poor first day by showing well on Sunday. Zavaleta falls under the same category that Andrew Wenger did last year in that his position at the next level is up for debate, and that is why the 20-year-old forward was switched from his regular position in college on Day 1 to centerback, where he has played as a U.S. youth national team player, on Day 2.
The result was a more impressive showing at centerback, where Zavaleta flashed good quickness for his size and good technical ability from the back.
“It took me a couple of minutes but I felt like it came back to me and I watched a lot of soccer and watched a lot film of myself and other players,” said Zavaleta of playing centerback. “Even playing forward, you learn things that make defenders uncomfortable and I tried to make sure I did those things to make the forwards I was playing against uncomfortable.”
Another player who enjoyed a better Day 2, although to a lesser degree, was Jason Johnson. The Virginia Commonwealth forward, who suffered an abysmal first day, assisted on a goal on Sunday and showed some flashes. Still, Johnson did not play up to the level he is capable of and he knows it.
“Better than the first day but not as good as I should be,” Johnson told SBI of his performance. “Part of it I think is fitness and the next part it is hard to play with other players you’ve never played with in your life. It’s kind of hard, but the first day we kind of used that to familiarize with each other. … Today was just a little step further.”
Johnson may not be playing his best soccer these days because of unfamiliarity with his combine teammates and a lack of fitness, but that has not scared off MLS teams. The Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution all met with Johnson during the first round of player-team meetings on Saturday, and there will likely be even more teams lining up to speak to him during round two after seeing him execute some nice dribbling moves before setting up a goal on Day 2.
As for Johnson, he wants to show better on Day 3 and hopefully score a goal or two.
“Any time you play, it could be a 3-v-3 or Sunday morning pick-up, when you score a goal, it gives you confidence,” said Johnson, who has yet to find the back of the net at the combine. “Just happy today but not as happy as I should because I think I worked hard. I can do and will do a lot better.”
Central Florida forward DeShorn Brown also had a slightly better showing on Day 2. He looked more in sync with his teammates and had some decent looks on goal, though his final touch let him down and left him with zero goals through the first two days.
“I think I did pretty well, it’s just that my shot was off,” Brown told SBI. “But I thought my movements off the ball and holding up the ball (was good), so I think I did really well.”
While Zavaleta, Brown and Johnson improved on Day 2, North Carolina’s Mikey Lopez did not. Lopez was deployed in a more defensive role in a diamond midfield, and he was unable to replicate the impressive performance he had on Day 1. The U.S. Under-20 men’s national team midfielder now heads into the final day wanting a better showing, even if it is in a position that might not best suit his strengths.
“Just play a little bit better and show them that I’m versatile,” Lopez said.
For 18-year-old forward Kekuta Manneh of Lake Travis High School, the second day of the combine offered some more exciting moments as he continued to climb up draft boards. Manneh was one of the most impressive players on day one, and continued to flash his impressive attacking attributes on Sunday. His quickness and willingness to take on defenders has definitely caught the eye of MLS scouts at the Combine, with some considering him the most exciting attacking prospect in the draft.
There is one more day for the Generation adidas class to shine, and Tuesday will provide the final opportunity for those early standouts to solidify their places near the top of the draft, while offering those few who are struggling a final chance to convince scouts that they truly are among the best players in this draft.