A handful of players will likely hear their name called in the top half of the first round on Thursday afternoon. Here's a primer on what to expect as they approach the next level.
It is a bit easier and a bit more prudent to assess the players themselves rather than predict how they will come off the board on Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis. MLS coaches and technical directors spend the majority of their time evaluating the merits of potential picks and projecting how their strengths and weaknesses might help or hurt their chances at the next level. They do wonder how the draft will proceed, but the focus is on the talent, not the process.
Instead of trying to predict the new homes of the top players in this draft, the Musings ran the rule over five of them after the MLS Player Combine to see how they might make the transition to the pros in the months and years ahead.
Carlos Alvarez, Connecticut midfielder: It isn't difficult to see why Chivas USA plans to select the Los Angeles native with the second overall pick. Alvarez boasts plenty of technical ability. He operates decently in tight quarters. He sees the field well. He floats and runs into the right spaces at the right time. He links up well with others. He possesses the ability to play the cutting pass at the right time. All of those qualities will serve him well at the next level. The question for him is whether he fits on the field if he isn't a starter in central midfield or if the Red-and-White decides against a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 setup. He isn't really a holding player (work rate issues), a second forward (too far removed from the ball) or a winger (spacing and speed issues). Many players with his particular qualities often sputter in their attempts to carve out playing time in a position that attracts expensive imports. He will have to prove himself quickly in order to avoid a similar fate.
Kyle Bekker, Boston College midfielder: Plenty of players have carved out lengthy careers in this league with Bekker's complement of skills. He moves the ball neatly and quickly from side to side with both feet and stretches out defenses with mostly accurate distribution over distance. He isn't particularly flashy even though he played in an advanced role at times with the Eagles. Although he can pick a pass in the final third, he projects more as a holding midfielder (or an inverted winger, if a team wants to leave plenty of room for an overlapping fullback) at the next level. He doesn't possess the type of range to fulfill those demands in certain systems and might get caught out if he pushes too high on a given play, but he could certainly thrive as one of the two deep-lying operators in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As an added bonus, he also serves inviting corner kicks and set pieces. If he lands in the right spot, he could win a starting place in relatively short order.
Andrew Farrell, Louisville defender: This rugged defender offers two key qualities for a player trying to successfully transition to the next level: a noticeable presence on the field and the versatility to play two or three positions on the field. Farrell probably projects best as a center back or as a right back because his distribution isn't always clean enough to fulfill the duties of a holding midfielder at the next level. He is physical enough and plenty quick enough to succeed as a center back even though he will confront taller forwards with some regularity, but he must cut out his tendency to gamble with his positioning and eliminate the one or two critical mistakes per game that simply won't fly in MLS. He could slide over to right back for a team that doesn't expect a lot of width from its fullbacks. If he doesn't start to play within himself, he may have to feature there more regularly anyways to maintain the overall defensive shape. Even with those foibles, the positives outweigh the negatives by a significant margin. He is a player capable of starting on a regular basis in the not too distant future.
Mikey Lopez, North Carolina midfielder: The first thing to notice about Lopez: he runs his socks off. No player in the Combine covered more ground. He isn't fast, per se, but he anticipates the play well and scurries about earnestly. Those sorts of qualities – although perhaps not his rather slight frame – may shunt him into a holding midfield role at the next level. It isn't a position Lopez particularly embraces, but it is one he could fulfill. The knock on him is that he doesn't pass the ball particularly well for a player that projects as a central midfielder. But that sort of issue isn't make or break given some of the players operating in engine rooms across the league right now. His endeavor and his Generation adidas status will earn him plenty of chances to establish himself in the league.
Eriq Zavaleta, Indiana defender/forward: Is he a forward or is he a defender? It makes some sense to start him up top and see what happens. Productive forwards carry more value in this league. Zavaleta boasts the necessary physical tools to serve as a target player at the next level. He operates well enough inside the final third to contribute a few goals, too. His combination play could use a little work, but the pieces are in place to succeed in a league where lesser skilled players draw minutes up top on a regular basis. If he is played in defense, he might need a bit of time to find his footing because he didn't play there much in college. His positioning will get there, but it isn't quite on point just yet. His experience as a forward and his overall intelligence on the field will help him as he attempts to track runners and cover up any cracks in the back four. Any team that takes him will have to show a bit of patience. He likely won't start opening day, but he will contribute somehow as the season progresses.
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