LAUDERHILL, Fla. – Noteworthy prospects benefit from a greater margin of error than their fellow SuperDraft hopefuls as they wade through the MLS Player Combine.
This weekend isn't necessarily make or break for them. Coaches and executives know who they are from their major college – and, in some cases, youth international – exploits and scout their games fairly frequently. If those same personnel men want to scour through out-of-area games from the college season to glean additional information, then they can just pull up some video from a televised game or two to round out their research.
Although the significant trove of background information provides some leeway for stars expected to come off the board in the first round, it also exposes them in the Combine setting because it allows clubs to evaluate them in different ways. Quality still rules the day in the overall scheme of things, but other traits such as malleability and versatility matter just as much in a setting where players cope with a series of disparate and oppressive demands in a short period of time.
“I'm just trying to show them that I can work within the team,” Connecticut midfielder Tony Cascio said on Friday when asked what he would try to do to impress technical staffs that have likely seen him play several times. “It's not only about the individual, but how well you can work with players that you don't really know as well.”
Structure and tempo offer the most complex problems for these players. Even the prominent prospects can find themselves in less-than-ideal situations on the field. It is, after all, hard to accommodate a group of players that, by and large, usually run the show for their own teams and play in a rather limited group of positions. Ensuring some form of fairness among the prospects means shuffling players around to give everyone a chance to shine. Coaches and technical directors abet the chaos as the Combine progresses by requesting to see players feature in particular spots. Those positional shifts – combined with the inherent problems of briskly finding common ground with new teammates – can make it hard for even the top players to exert their influence in Combine matches.
Consider the case of UCLA midfielder Kelyn Rowe from the opening game of the Combine as an illustration of the problem and its potential solution. The Generation adidas starlet and U.S. U-23 international schemer found himself shunted out to the right wing at the outset (a spot he has played at times, but not his natural position) and struggled to display his skills during the frantic opening stages of the contest. As the match progressed, Rowe gradually edged his way into the game by drifting toward the middle to find the game, locating the ball more frequently and sliding into the right spaces to facilitate possession and play telling passes.
“Things started off a little direct, but, finally, toward the second half, things settled down and that's where I shine, when I get the ball at my feet and go at the back line,” Rowe said. “It was good in the second half.”
The entire scenario gave Rowe a chance to display his ability to adjust to a novel situation and permitted him to offer a different look at his skill set. With available creative central positions at a premium in MLS, he may have to prove his value in the wide areas or as a withdrawn forward in order to earn playing time during his rookie campaign. He showed enough on the opening day to perhaps allow teams to project how he can fit into their squads if they had any lingering questions about his versatility.
“I need to be able to play wherever the coach needs me,” Rowe said. “Playing out wide, in the middle or up front -- wherever they need me -- it's good to show that I can do it.”
The positional chopping and changing merely adds to the inherent pressure most of these players feel to perform. It is an extended and rigorous job interview that includes several factors well outside of individual control. Successful Combine participants usually find some way to cope with the stress, ignore the temptation to press too hard to impress, manage the peculiarities of the situation and show the qualities that landed them on the radar in the first place.
“I'm just trying to play solidly,” Louisville defender Austin Berry said. “I'm not trying to do anything out of the ordinary or do something that I don't normally do. I'm just focusing on the things I do well: communicating and playing strong.”
Those traits, among many others, will stand out as coaches and executives draw up their draft boards over the next few days and render their verdicts on Thursday. For now, the focus for projected top picks remains trained upon accentuating their ample collegiate accomplishments – and eliminating the need for that cushion – with a positive final impression.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.