LAUDERHILL, Fla. – Saturday usually serves as moving day at the MLS Player Combine. Some players take the opportunity to climb up or slide down draft boards as the quality of play improves. Other players – including Indiana and Generation Adidas forward Eriq Zavaleta – embrace a more literal approach to the term.
Zavaleta featured at center back during Day Two of the Combine at the request of several MLS coaches and technical directors. The prolific striker never played there in a competitive match during his two years at Indiana, but his promise in the position as a youth international and the questions about his professional potential at that spot all but ensured he would have to play there this weekend.
“I kinda had a good idea going into it that I would be able to play in both spots,” Zavaleta said. “After the national championship and a little break, I started training to prepare myself in both spots. I haven't played a real game in quite a while at center back. It took me a few minutes to adjust, but I felt like I had to be prepared to come in to do what I had to do.”
The hard work yielded significant dividends. Zavaleta submitted an impressive performance for a player with little recent experience in the position. His commanding presence – a factor matched only by mooted number one pick Andrew Farrell (Louisville/Generation adidas) – covered up any minor positioning errors. His partnership with Dylan Tucker-Gangnes (Washington) – one of a host of center backs clustered behind Farrell in the pecking order – operated on solid ground. For a player used to scoring goals, Zavaleta proved more than adept at trying to prevent them.
“I think it took me a couple of minutes, but it felt like it came back to me,” Zavaleta said. “I watch a lot of soccer. I watch a lot of film of myself and other players. Even playing forward, you learn things that make defenders uncomfortable. I tried to make sure that I did things to make sure the forwards were uncomfortable.”
At this stage, the discomfort probably rests with interested clubs as they try to determine where Zavaleta fits into their plans. His two seasons at Indiana revealed a forward capable of holding up the ball and scoring goals with some regularity. His time as a youth international and his display here at the Combine suggests he can also stop opposing strikers if asked to do so.
From a theoretical perspective, his value in this draft class probably tilts more toward the front line. Most of the forwards in the first-round discussion pose threats with speed rather than power. Zavaleta's productivity at the college level compares with prolific Notre Dame forward Ryan Finley (another potential option in a fairly similar mold). Zavaleta's status as a Generation Adidas player increases his value at that spot, though he certainly brings plenty to a side as a defender as well.
The final decision over Zavaleta's future rests with the team that eventually secures his services on Thursday. For now, he isn't planning to tip his hand one way or the other.
“I'm ready to step in wherever a team picks me up,” Zavaleta said. “I'm excited for the opportunity. I think I can do a job with whatever a team wants me to do.”
adiZero maintains its place atop the table with second consecutive victory
Game One: adiZero (blue) 3, adiPower (red) 2: adiZero picked up where it left off from Friday's romp by scoring twice inside the first 20 minutes. Kyle Bekker (Boston College/senior signing) made a clever run to corral Emery Welshman's (Oregon State) neat through ball for the opener. Welshman doubled the advantage after Erik Hurtado (Santa Clara) provided an inviting cross. Stefano Pinho (youth international) tucked home six minutes into the second half to throw his side a lifeline, but Charlie Rugg (Boston College) settled matters after 72 minutes with his second goal of the Combine. Pinho reduced the deficit with his third goal in two games, but it wasn't enough to keep the blue side from notching a second straight win.
Game Two: Prime (green) 0, adiPure (light blue) 0: The personnel on the field ultimately provided more intrigue than the run of play in this dour match. Hermann Trophy nominees Ryan Finley (Notre Dame/senior signing) and Jose Gomez (Creighton) debuted after landing here on Saturday. Eriq Zavaleta (Indiana/Generation adidas) featured at center back after playing at forward on Friday and showed well in that spot. And the rest of the match offered little to distract from the focus on those three players.
1. adiZero (blue), 2-0-0, 6 pts.
2. Prime (green), 0-0-2, 2 pts.
3. adiPower (red), 0-1-1, 1 pt.
4. adiPure (light blue), 0-1-1, 1 pt.
Quotes of the day
“Am I interested in going to Chivas USA? Yeah, yeah, I'm definitely interested in going to Chivas USA. It's a good city, Los Angeles. But the stuff that they're doing, I really like what they're trying to do and bring to that team. Hopefully, they'll choose me and I can help them out and make the team better.”
- North Carolina and Generation Adidas midfielder Mikey Lopez on his desire to play for Chivas USA
“He's not going to sugarcoat it. He's going to tell me what I did right and what I did wrong. And that's what I need.”
– Indiana and Generation Adidas defender/forward Eriq Zavaleta about his relationship with his uncle, former US international Greg Vanney
News and notes
– Most of the players rose to the occasion on the second day. On the whole, the fare improved significantly. The improved technical quality – even in the rather drab second game – handed coaches and technical directors an inviting opportunity to evaluate players at a higher standard.
– Finley engaged with his teammates on his Combine debut and looked for ways to bring them into the game. He did so at the expense of his own opportunities at points. In this particular instance, he might have benefited from a bit more selfishness in front of goal.
– Gomez featured as an attacking midfielder on his first day at the Combine. Although he didn't particularly influence matters, he managed to live up to his scouting report. He remains a gifted and technical player with no natural position in MLS. Some club – Chivas USA would make sense here, of course – might gamble on his ability to make the transition into its system despite his slight stature. In terms of his sporting future, Gomez would probably enjoy more success if he could win a contract with Club Tijuana or some other club south of the border.
– One other debutante on Sunday: Cameroonian midfielder Yazid Atouba. The recent import offered plenty of pace when he entered the second game as a substitute, but his occasional carelessness in possession won't help his cause.
– Day Two proved particularly profitable for the high-profile Canadians. Bekker consolidated his place among the top Combine performers. Welshman – a former club teammate of Bekker's at Sigma FC, according to MLSsoccer.com – displayed his speed at various junctures and supplied Bekker for his goal with a deft pass.
– Bekker continues to draw scrutiny as observers attempt to suss out where he should come off the board. His final spot in the pecking order should fall far below the exact destination on his list of priorities. The former Boston College star would fit best with a side that plays with two holding midfielders. The extra man in midfield would cover up his lack of range and permit him to show off his quality on the ball without fear of immediate retribution.
– Chivas USA faces a fairly stark choice with its second overall pick if it adheres to its stated preference for a Mexican-American player. Is it wiser for the Red-and-White to choose Carlos Alvarez's creativity and lineage or Mikey Lopez's range and work rate to fill out its midfield options? Either way, the decision likely won't impact what Toronto FC and New England plan to do with the following two selections.
– One factor that might play into that choice: Lopez said he prefers to operate as a box-to-box player rather than as a holding midfielder.
– Lopez also noted that he spoke with Colorado, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City during his interviews on Saturday. Plenty of room exists for other teams to join the list with another set of interview slots on tap for Monday.
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