By J.J. DUKE
During the month of January, the eyes of the American pro soccer world will be focused in on the state of Florida. Graduating collegiate seniors and a handful of impressive underclassmen will be hitting the field trying to impress future bosses, while a good part of the country will be digging themselves out of the recent snowstorms.
With only a select number of players going to Fort Lauderdale to take part in the MLS Combine, there are numbers of other collegiate standouts that want to prove their worth and want to continue their playing careers. And with the rise of expansion teams in the NASL and USL Pro every year, the number of opportunities for these players continue to grow.
That starting block for many players will take place today as InfoSport will begin their 13th Annual Pro Soccer Combine at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, Florida. This combine gives many players a chance to impress coaches and scouts from the MLS, NASL and USL Pro.
“Whether you are an MLS, NASL, USLPro coach or a coach at any other level, anytime you get a chance to see players you haven’t seen yet, you will be there,” said Daryl Shore, Director of Soccer at InfoSport and current head coach of NASL side Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. “That is what InfoSport provides for the coaches as well as giving players an opportunity to play in front of our staff.”
More than 285 players have been accepted to take part in this year’s edition of the InfoSport combine. The group of players includes those who have recently completed their collegiate careers this past fall, free agents or veteran professionals who are looking for contracts.
“This combine allows under the radar players to be seen by 15-20 professional coaches, outside of our coaches as well,” said Shore. “And it gives these coaches another opportunity to find that diamond in the rough, and possibly end up
having players be invited to pre-season camps or eventually get signed directly.”
During the three days, the players will be placed into one of 15 different teams and each team is assigned one of the visiting coaches as well. From there, the coaches will put players through regular training sessions as well as see their
players in game action, varying both on small fields as well as full-sided games. The overall experience gives coaches a look at many different players and their fitness as well as their technical abilities.
On the final day, there will be a match featuring a select team of the top players from the combine to face the USA U-17 National team, giving the coaches another opportunity to see the players against good competition.
“At the lower levels we don’t have resources that MLS coaches have, like paying for scouts, getting match analysis on players, etc,” said Shore. “So seeing these players up close gives coaches a great opportunity to find some pieces for
their own team.”
InfoSport was started in the mid-1990s as a basketball service and began running combines for up-and-coming basketball players. But in 1999, current President of InfoSport, Julie Lanzillo ran into, then General Manager of the Richmond Kickers, Curt Johnson and from that point there was discussion of starting a soccer combine as well.
Johnson then took the General Manager job at the Kansas City Wizards but before he left, he put the word out to other current coaches about working with Lanzillo about starting up a soccer combine. From that outreach by Johnson, that is eventually how Lanzillo and Shore met and created the first combine.
The 2001 inaugural edition of the InfoSport Soccer Combine produced 94 players and six coaches, including Shore. Eventually three players that attended players ended up getting drafted and a few more signed on as free agents later on.
“The “Cocoa Years” as we call them, were pretty lean, when we were just starting out,” said Lanzillo. “The facility was nowhere near what we have now, and the sacrifices the coaches made to come there for 3 days were admirable.”
Now in the 12 years of holding the InfoSport Player Combine (this year will be the second year held at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch), more than 200 players that have featured at the combines have appeared on professional rosters, both in the USA as well as overseas. Such players include former New York Red Bull and Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul, Danleigh Borman of New York and most recently of SuperSport United in South Africa. Former D.C. United goalkeeping product Andrew Dykstra and former Chicago Fire veteran Dasan Robinson are also alumni.
For many players that don’t play at the top college programs, the InfoSport Combine provides a chance to prove themselves in front of top pro scouts, a chance that many have not had in their college career. Jonathan Burd recently graduated from Rider University and he jumped at the chance to take part in the InfoSport Combine believing that it gives players who come from overlooked programs a chance to compete with other top players from around the country.
“When I applied to the InfoSport Combine and saw that there are a lot of kids going (to the combine) who come from schools like Ohio State and Clemson and I want to prove that I can play at their level,” said Burd. “And I want to make it to the next level. It doesn’t have to be MLS, but the NASL and USL Pro have been getting strong now too. So getting to that level and making a camp or a squad would be great.”
At the end of the day, Lanzillo believes that the coaches that attend the combine are the ones who make the experience worthwhile for both the players and the people who run the event.
“What most people do not see every year is the effort and energy that these coaches give for three days – always available to players, approachable and player-focused, which is our mission at InfoSport,” Lanzillo said. “Whatever it takes to provide the best player-centered experience is what drives every decision. And the coaches get that, and make it happen. They too are one of the biggest reasons that we are still here, 13 years later, and going strong. It is without a doubt, my favorite week of the year.”
For the dozens of players who will take the field this week, the InfoSport Combine could wind up becoming their favorite event of the year if it helps them earn a professional contract.