MLS Combine: Off-Day Observations

Photo by MLS/Andy Mead

By IVES GALARCEP

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.– The MLS Combine took a break today, the day before players have their final chance to impress scouts with Tuesday’s Combine-closing matches.

Players went through their final round of meetings with interested teams as team officials looked to get to know the prospects they have been watching over the past few days (and months).

Wondering which teams are considering moving up? Want to know who has seen their stock rise the most? Here are some MLS Combine Off-Day Observations to shed some light on those subjects:

TEN OFF-DAY OBSERVATIONS

1- Kyle Bekker’s stock is soaring. 

The Boston College midfielder enjoyed a second strong day and now the talk has gone from “What Canadian team will grab him in the first round” to “just how high can he go”?

His movement, intelligence and technical quality has scouts raving and now it’s not a stretch to say he should go in the Top 10. A place in the Top Five still seems too early, though Vancouver will have to at least think about taking him at No. 5. That’s not something many would have expected a week ago.

He isn’t the only Canadian who has impressed. Emery Welshman has played himself into the first round, and if he has another good day on Thursday he could wind up coming off the board in the 16-19 range. It’s tough to see anybody reaching for him sooner than that, even though he truly has been impressive.

2- Most teams rate Andrew Farrell No. 1, but not all do. 

Walker Zimmerman tops the draft boards for most of the remainder of the teams. He has a groin injury that has kept him out of the Combine but remains the No. 2 rated player in this draft.

A regular on the U.S. Under-20 national team when healthy, Zimmerman is the sort of prototypical centerback prospect (6-foot-3 and athletic) that has some teams desperate to try and trade up into the top three to snag him.

Farrell didn’t play as well on Sunday as he did last Friday, which opened the door for more criticism from skeptics who think he is still a bit too raw to be considered a lock No. 1, but you still find players and coaches raving about him pretty consistently. Right now I’d say there’s about a 95 percent chance that either Farrell or Zimmerman will be the first player take on Thursday.

3- Colorado loves Zimmerman

At the top of the Zimmerman Fan Club list, I’m told, are the Colorado Rapids, who are in dire need of a quality young centerback. They currently hold the sixth pick and could package allocation money and/or a player to move up to No. 1 to select Zimmerman. The Rapids are believed to be shopping Jeff Larentowicz, but he wouldn’t be a part of a deal with TFC considering the Canadian side already have Torsten Frings and are about to sign former Sporting KC midfielder Julio Cesar.

4- Portland could work way back into first round.

The Timbers moved out of the first round by dealing the No. 3 overall pick to Toronto FC in a deal that landed them Ryan Johnson. It appears Caleb Porter and Portland want back into the first round, with rumors swirling that the Timbers are trying to trade their way back in.

What would Portland have to surrender to move into the first round? The $75,000 in allocation money they are set to receive for the rights to Robbie Findley could help facilitate a deal. It should be noted that just as recently as 2010, a first-round pick was traded for $150,000 in allocation money (FC Dallas sold the No. 7 overall pick in 2010 for that amount to the Philadelphia Union).

5- TFC a safe bet to trade down with one pick.

Kevin Payne loves the draft. Why wouldn’t he considering how well D.C. United has done with the draft through the years? With that in mind, it is a safe bet TFC keeps one of their two high first-round picks while using the other to trade down and stockpile some allocation money.

Who might be interested in that kind of move into the top three? Colorado, Columbus, Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC and Seattle are all teams I could see working some magic on draft day.

6- Jason Johnson silding, but could be a steal

Before the MLS Combine, Jason Johnson was a projected top-five player, but after struggling through two straight days (and on the heels of a finish to his college season that could hardly be called a strong one), Johnson’s stock is sliding fast.

Just how far can he fall? I had one technical director tell me he thinks Johnson could slip out of the first round. I highly, highly doubt that. For as much as he is struggling with his fitness, and as alarming as it is for a player to come to the Combine out of shape, he still has some impressive tools and could be a steal for a team like Chicago or Real Salt Lake.

7- Teams that could be on the move on draft day, and what they’re looking for?

Trade talk is a major part of MLS Combine week and we are already starting to hear some rumblings about teams that could be interested in making moves in the draft order.

As mentioned above, TFC is looking to move down with one of the two top three picks they hold, while Colorado is looking to move up. You also have teams like Real Salt Lake (forward), Sporting Kansas City (central midfielder), Columbus (centerback) and Seattle Sounders (forward, centerback) who I hear are testing the waters to see if they can move up to stand a better chance of landing an elite player at their key position of need.

8- So you want to play for Chivas USA?

It isn’t often when you have players lining up to profess their desire to play for a team as notoriously mismanaged as Chivas USA, but that’s what we had on Sunday when both Carlos Alvarez and Mikey Lopez stated that they want to play for the Goats.

That isn’t much of a surprise considering the fact that playing for Chivas USA means one of them will have been the No. 2 player in the draft, but their desire to play for the Goats goes well beyond that. Both are technical players who could thrive in a more Mexican-style system, and then you have Alvarez being from Los Angeles and having a father who once played for Chivas Guadalajara.

Which of the two will Chivas USA actually take? With new coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola stating publicly that he wants Mexican Americans in this draft, he has pretty much left himself with picking one of those two with the No. 2 pick, even though Andrew Farrell and Walker Zimmerman would address the team’s desperate need for defensive help. I wouldn’t have pegged the Goats to take Alvarez at No. 2 before the draft (he was projected more as an 8-12 pick) but based on the sound of things, it is very much a possibility now.

9- Eriq Zavaleta is a centerback

I know he scored tons of goals for Indiana, and I know some insist he’s better as a forward, but he showed on Sunday the qualities that could make him a truly special central defender.

Could he score some goals in MLS? Possibly, but he has significantly more upside as a centerback and for a team picking in the Top Five, he will be much more of a value pick as a centerback than as a forward. Ultimately, whichever team takes him could give him a look at both spots, but chances are that the team that makes him a Top Five pick (he should be a Top Ten lock) will be picking him with the hope of him potentially being a Geoff Cameron-like multi-faceted central defender.

10- The Current Top Ten on the SBI Big Board

I’m not doing another Mock Draft and Big Board until AFTER the Combine and the day before the MLS Draft, but here is how I see the Top Ten on my Big Board looking right now, based not just on Combine, but also pre-draft rankings, as of Monday (and yes, I’m sure it will be tweaked between now and Wednesday):

1. Andrew Farrell

2. Walker Zimmerman

3. Mikey Lopez

4. Kekuta Manneh

5. Eriq Zavaleta

6. Erik Hurtado

7. Kyle Bekker

8. John Stertzer

9.  Carlos Alvarez

T10. Deshorn Brown

T10. Jason Johnson

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16 Responses to MLS Combine: Off-Day Observations

  1. AMPhibian says:

    quality piece! i would love the rapids to move down and snag WZ, to me he’s the surest pick coming out this year.

  2. Um, yeah says:

    If so many of the top players on the board are underclassmen every year, why not let more underclassmen in the draft? Do they have to have a Generation Adidas deal to be in the draft if they aren’t seniors?

    • Eric says:

      Yeah. As far as I know, you have to be a senior to come out unless you’ve signed a GA contract. Most of the time it’s to protect these college players. A lot of them would likely come out and either not get selected or be cut early on, ruining any chance of going back and finishing school. Most of these kids are better off getting the degree first and then trying their luck at a pro career.

      At this point in MLS’ development in terms of player salary for non GA players and anyone not a top senior, there’s not enough money to make up for the risk of coming out early unlike the NBA or NFL.

  3. Jayboy says:

    Ives – I’ve seen you and several other journalists talk about college players “projecting” as pro defenders, despite being college forwards. I feel like I never heard this talk until just the last year or two and I was hoping you could explain the line of thinking. I’ve always thought that great strikers were far more valuable than defenders (maybe an ex-strikers bias!), but there must be more to it. Are some of these players just good with their heads and athletic, but don’t have the touch/pace to do it in the pros?? Is it about height and speed? And do many 20-22 year olds in other countries get bumped from forward to defense? I’d love a full post on this, but even a short reply would be great! Anyone in the SBI gallery have any insight??

    • Paul Miller says:

      Good forwards are a dime a dozen. Great forwards… that’s another story. But most aren’t great. Defenders, however, are worth their weight in gold.

      Personally, I believe we’ve gone so far down the ball skills/Coerver/whatever road that at the youth level we’ve de-emphasized defensive techniques. The results are showing. Remember when the USMNT couldn’t threaten to score to save their lives, but they had a realistic shot of every once in a while shutting down Brazil’s attack? If so, you’re probably my age.

      Now, we can score on anyone in the world. No, we’re not a great attacking side yet. We’re arguably just entering the ‘good’ ranks. But we can’t even shut down Antigua’s Peter Byers.

      You look at these defenders, and even casual observers over the course of 90 minutes can pick out a few positional mistakes, body technique mistakes, etc. And that’s just the 1v1 stuff. So, yes, solid defenders are now the thing everyone wants.

      • Vic says:

        Not sure about this. We’ve improved quite a bit in possession because of the increase in German Americans, Mexican Americans and overall increase in skill in Americans. When you have more possession its harder to defend. Teams counter attack us like we used to do to them.

      • Josh D says:

        I almost agreed with you. But we differentiate in that I don’t think we’ve lost our defensive qualities (i.e. ability to develop defenders), I think as a nation we still don’t know how to develop a proper striker and we are shortsighted enough to see big, fast players as defenders.

        I think our failure in scouting is highlighted by this discussion. Here you have a player who has scored tons at the highest level he’s played, and has done well as a CB because he’s athletic. That’s all I have heard about him as a CB: He’s athletic (fast, big) and he’s technical. There’s nothing about his ability to read the game or tackle or head.

        I think we have an obsession with truly fast players being forwards and big, athletic guys automatically thrown in at CB. I played CB through my early twenties and I will be the first to say that CB is the one position on the field where you can shine the easiest. Big guys who can run fast and pass will always look solid as a CB at the college level.

        Why isn’t he a striker? Why haven’t the others who are turned into CBs? I think it’s because we don’t know how to identify forwards and because we can’t take forwards to the next level. Thus far, forwards like Dempsey, McBride, and Jozy all took their skills up a level after MLS. I think MLS allows you to find your feet as a professional striker, but moving abroad is the only way to truly learn the technical aspects of the game.

    • Ives Galarcep says:

      First off, a player having one big year as a forward in college doens’t make them a “great forward.” Indiana moved Zavaleta to forward to fill a need. They didn’t have forwards and he showed he could play there. Before Indiana he was a youth national team centerback, which is where the whole “He’s really a centerback” thing stems from. This isn’t some new trend. It just so happens that the past two years there have been players who made the move to forward and lit it up. Last year it was Andrew Wenger, who was originally a centerback, then moved to midfield, and finally moved to forward.

      Great strikers are worth more than great defenders, yes, but it’s far tougher to find a truly great pro striker, and success in college as a forward hardly means success on the next level as a forward.

      • Josh D says:

        Ives,

        I’d still love to know why you think he’s a better CB than striker. What he was as a youth isn’t what he is now on the verge of being a professional soccer player after having a stellar year as a striker. If anything, his ability to come into a brand new position and naturally grasp how to score should be applauded.

        What about his game says he’s a striker? And what about his abilities as a striker say he can’t make it?

        I haven’t seen him so this is a legit question; not a challenge.

    • TomG says:

      It’s common in all sports for players to change roles as they move up. Look at all of the dominant college starting pitchers who project as MLB relievers because they only have one or two pitches. It’s the same principle. You need 3-4 pitches to succeed as an MLB starter but you can dominate with 2 as a reliever. In college soccer, you can score a lot of goals with one or two good tools or skills because you have more time on the ball. In MLS, unless your tools are world class, you need a very high technical level to be able to score a lot, so a lot of these guys are very iffy when projected as strikers.

      On the other hand, the league is beginning to develop more sophisticated tactics which call for better technical ability from their CBs, so a striker with excellent athleticism and aerial ability who possesses only average technical ability for a striker becomes an extremely appealing option as a cb because average for a striker is excellent technically for a typical MLS cb. Most of these guys also have a cb background, so it’s a natural switch.

      In order for this to become a top league, we will need to develop skilled players at ALL positions, not just strikers. It’s a very positive thing, IMO, for MLS to be moving in this direction, and indicative of a better, more technical league.

    • chris says:

      I think its because we are developing more well rounded players that happen to end up in situations where the teams attack is lacking compared to the defence so players like (Wenger, Zavaleta, Gaul) that can also attack are put in positions where they can best help their team.

      • The Imperative Voice says:

        I think it’s more about the fact that we produce all around athletes with solid ball skills, which is a formula at our level of league that can play around the perimeter of the formation. Just like our hand eye coordination from other sports makes us better GKs.

        What I think we tend to lack, or to peripheralize, are players like Barros Schelotto and Brad Davis who are high on finesse but low on athleticism. Well, maybe not like them specifically, but if you are a finesse player but not as good as them, I think the modern MLS struggles to include you because the styles, formations, approaches are so much built around athleticism, hustle, team defense.

        I think it has more to do with qualities we prize and that if you have them MLS will keep moving you around and see where you fit, whereas if you aren’t in the mold I’ve seen some decent players who are square peg round hole.

        • The Imperative Voice says:

          Corey Ashe to me is a classic example. Kinnear loves the guy and has played him in a few spots, including now back, but he can’t hit a cross, positions poorly, and isn’t even all that good at getting stuck in. But he motors and motors and that has earned him endless PT here as Davis’ understudy or at LB.

    • The Imperative Voice says:

      I think there’s an argument to be made that forwards and backs have more in common with each other than middies. Middies pay faster for technical mistakes and thus need to be sharper. Middies to me also need more of a cross-country runner level of motor/ endurance.

      But a mediocre forward with decent ball skills and speed who is hustling in nature and has the knack for defense can be a serviceable wingback of the Bornstein/ Albright mold. In theory. As long as you aren’t Dom Oduro I think the skills for playing in some space are transferable around the park. Just not for playing CM. And if the assessment is, flush, at your normal position, ok, fine, try me at back.

      I mean, look at Wondo (perhaps before he took off), he has good enough touch, good work rate, endurance. I’ve seen him chase people around the park. He could be a back.

      I can’t say I really agree with moving targets to CB. I’m a big believer in mobility. If you’re not coordinated enough to be a pro forward how can you keep up with a more coordinated version of yourself on defense?

      • TomG says:

        Middies? Did this turn into a lacrosse blog? Doesn’t have much to do with coordination, though, it’s mainly about technical ability IMO.

  4. Vic says:

    I would say its easier to succeed in MLS as a centerback. MLS teams usually use their foreign slots and DP slots for offensive players which makes it more difficult for an American to break thru.