By IVES GALARCEP
LAUDERHILL, Fla.– The second match day of the 2013 MLS Combine featured two very different matches. The first was a goal-fest that provided plenty of action for MLS scouts to consider when weighing the quality of the draft pool, while the second match was a far less impressive goal-less draw that did few favors for the players who participated.
We saw several of the same players who impressed on Day One do so again on Day Two. Kekuta Manneh once again showed great touch and impressive quickness, while Andrew Farrell continued to look like a dominant defender. Emery Welshman was the best player of the day on Sunday, with he and fellow Canadian Kyle Bekker continuing to boost their draft stock.
Some players continued to struggle, none more visibly than Generation adidas signing Jason Johnson, who did manage a goal on Sunday, but struggled with a lack of fitness and sharpness that was clear for all to see. He admitted to not being in shape after Sunday’s match, which won’t help his draft stock, but he remains a talent too highly regarded to fall completely out of the first-round picture.
Something that does need to be said about this year’s Combine is that organizers haven’t done the players or the league’s teams any favors with the make-up of the rosters for the event. By inviting far too many forwards, Combine organizers have forced coaches to play 4-3-3 formations in many cases, which is a problem for a number of reasons.
For one, not many teams in the league really use the 4-3-3 with any regularity. Sporting Kansas City does, and the Philadelphia Union do, but far more teams employ the 4-4-2, meaning most teams aren’t getting to see draft prospects in midfield and at forward playing in roles they would play for most MLS teams.
This is also an issue for the players, particularly the midfielders, who are finding themselves forced into unfamiliar roles far too often. The predominance of the 4-3-3 at the Combine has meant few opportunities for pure wingers to shine, or for fullbacks to really be tested.
Now, back to the players and how they fared on Sunday. Here is a closer look at how the draft prospects performed during the Combine’s second day of matches:
James Belshaw was the most impressive goalkeeper on the day, flashing his quickness and reaction-save ability. He’s aggressive and boasts better size than scouts thought. David Meves also looked sharp. Larry Jackson had a few shaky moments handling the ball, but remains near the top of the the pecking order at goalkeeper. Luis Soffner had another quiet day and has been unable to build on the momentum that his profile received from his outstanding NCAA Tournament run.
Machael David became the latest player to move from their natural position and give right back a try at the Combine. He looked like a natural there, getting forward and combining well. Whether he can handle the defensive duties is another story. Emery Welshman made a cameo appearance at right back, but nobody should read anything into that. After Sunday’s games he made it clear he was completely clueless about the position and has no intention of ever playing there again.
As for natural right backs, Jordan Gafa had a decent showing, but still seems unlikely to be drafted.
Dylan Tucker-Gangnes put together another strong day, and is now challenging Patrick Muller and Eric Schoenle for the title of best senior centerback. Some scouts wonder how much he is being helped by playing alongside Andrew Farrell, but Tucker-Gangnes made enough plays on his own to show that he’s on the rise on draft boards.
Eriq Zavaleta made his debut at centerback and showed just why scouts believe that is ultimately where he will wind up playing on the pro level. His athleticism, good feet and size are an even more impressive combination playing in the back, and if he can put together another good outing at centerback on Tuesday, Zavaleta could cement his place in the Top Ten, and even potentially in the Top Five.
Kofi Opare had another good day, and his stock received a boost with the revelation that he actually holds an American passport. It was believed he was a Canadian citizen, but Opare confirmed to SBI that he has American citizenship and is close to gaining Canadian citizenship. That difference could mean a jump of 10 spots or more on the draft boards of most teams (at least the ones of teams that thought he was Canadian).
Keep an eye on Trinidadian centerback Brenton Griffiths. He impressed for the second straight day, and he also showed off some really good long passes. He’s 6-foot-3, so adding good passing to that size makes him a player who could play himself into the second round.
Taylor Kemp has shown the traits that make him a solid attacking left back, though he hasn’t really been tested defensively, which remains a concern for scouts. Korey Kindle showed off some good defensive qualities, as well as impressive athleticism, on Sunday and he remains right behind Kemp on most draft boards at left back.
Jimmy Nealis was quiet once again and might wind up settling in as a likely second-round selection, while Greg Cochrane took his turn in midfield on Sunday as a left winger. John Gallagher remains a player who is quietly creeping up the rankings at left back.
RIGHT WING/RIGHT FORWARD
Erik Hurtado looked good again, with his tenacious work rate, blazing speed and great feet, he looks like a lock to be a Top Ten pick at this point.
Kekuta Manneh is just such an intelligent player for his age. Yes, he is quick as can be, and his confidence on the ball is something to be seen, but it’s his ability to make good decisions in the attack that has to have scouts raving about a player who suddenly looks like he could be the best attacking player in this draft.
Blake Smith was able to get more involved on Sunday, but continues to struggle to make his mark and it can be argued that it has as much to do with the way his team is being lined up to play as it is because of his own ability. Smith continues to be the best pure winger in this draft, and is still a good bet to go in the 10-15 range in the first round.
Kyle Bekker is the real deal. He had a poor college season, but he has shown at the Combine the qualities that have so many Canadian soccer people raving about him. I’m still not sure I see him being a Top Five pick, but right now seeing him in the Top Ten wouldn’t be all that surprising and you can rest assured he won’t make it out of the first round.
Carlos Alvarez wasn’t as impressive on Sunday as he was on Friday, but he had less time to work with and looked content to defer to teammates. He remains one of the top playmakers on the board, and his public declaration that he wants to play for Chivas USA might just leave a good impression on the Goats (even if it might turn off some other teams that could look to land him if Chivas USA passes).
Dillon Powers was better on Sunday than he was on Friday, leaving little doubt that he is one of the best midfielders in the draft. He and John Stertzer are battling to see which senior midfielder will be taken first. Stertzer has closed the ground on Powers and is a sure-fire Top 15 pick.
Mikey Lopez had a relatively quiet day, but that was down at least in some part to him being miscast in a deep-lying midfield role in a diamond midfield. He still managed to move the ball around well even though he wasn’t really able to have a hand in the attack.
Ian Christianson needed to have a better second day and he did, covering ground well and keeping the ball circulating when given the chance. He isn’t flashy, and isn’t wowing anybody with his athleticism, but you can see he is a smart soccer player and in a draft with few quality defensive midfielders, Christianson should be one of the first taken off the board on Thursday.
Deshorn Brown was slightly better on Sunday than he was on a frustrating Friday, but with Jason Johnson looking so out of it, there has been less attention on how underwhelming Brown has been. He did flash some of the speed that makes him a potential game-changer, but he’ll probably need a strong showing on Tuesday to avoid slipping behind Manneh and the central midfielders at the top of the first round.
Ashton Bennett is good at making runs, and timing his runs well, but far too often the final product wasn’t good enough. He was better on Friday.
Ryan Finley came right in for his first day and looked mobile, but probably should have taken his best look of the day instead of laying it off. He didn’t turn heads, but will have a chance on Tuesday to show why he should be one of the first forwards off the board.
Chris Thomas wasn’t as impressive on Sunday as on Friday, but he didn’t look bad either.
Devon Sandoval had a worse Sunday than he did on Friday, which is troubling considering he wasn’t very sharp on Friday either.
MLS COMBINE DAY TWO BEST XI
————-Andrew Farrell——–Dylan Tucker-Gangnes—-
HONORABLE MENTION– David Meves, Korey Kindle, Brenton Griffiths, Eriq Zavaleta, Jordan Gafa, Donnie Smith, Mikey Lopez, Charlie Rugg.