By FRANCO PANIZO
CHESTER, Penn. – When the rosters for the 2012 MLS Combine were released earlier this year, one name that drew attention was Ray Gaddis. But it was not for reasons you might initially think.
Gaddis was not among the dozens of players selected for the multi-day event in January in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a head-scratching development considering the fact Gaddis enjoyed an outstanding four years as a top player for West Virginia University.
All Gaddis has done since is make that snub look all the more foolish. Selected with the 35th overall pick by the Philadelphia Union, Gaddis has put together a string of strong performances at multiple positions. And part of what has been driving him is getting snubbed at the MLS Combine.
"Not being invited to the combine was almost a fuel in me, and I play every game like I have a chip on my shoulder, to prove myself," said Gaddis. "That's the type of person I am."
That drive to prove he deserved more respect from MLS Combine organizers is a reason he has played so well since making his professional debut on April 14th in the Union's 1-0 victory against the Columbus Crew. Given short notice that he would be starting due to an injury to Dan Califf in warm-ups, Gaddis showed no rookie jitters. He shut down veteran midfielder Eddie Gaven en route to helping the Union pick up their first win of the season.
Gaddis showed that debut was no fluke a week later, turning in another 90-minute shift in a 1-0 triumph on the road against Chivas USA. He faced another veteran in Ryan Smith in that game, and the 22-year-old rookie used his speed to help stymie the crafty winger.
"Every week I've had to face tough competition, whether it's Gaven the first week or Smith then (San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski)," said Gaddis. "Every game I've felt like I've been thrown into the fire fairly quickly and I think it's helped me."
As if going up against those crafty veterans was not enough of a challenge, Gaddis soon found himself being thrown into a new position. The natural right back was shifted over to the left back spot against the high-flying Seattle Sounders. The Union lost that game, 1-0, but Gaddis did fairly well at the position considering he had never played there before, even clearing an early shot from Fredy Montero off the goal line.
Gaddis also played left back this past weekend against the rival New York Red Bulls, and the speedster was one of the lone defensive bright spots in a game the 10-man Union lost, 3-2. Gaddis used his speed and strength to negate the dangerous Dane Richards, and even prevented the Red Bulls midfielder from scoring an insurance goal late in the game.
"His progression from day one to now has been pretty extreme," said Union defender Sheanon Williams. "When you get tossed into a situation like he's been tossed into, not only having to play right back but having to play left back, he's done as well as anybody could have asked. He's definitely been fighting in every game that we've had."
Gaddis admits that while playing left back has been a challenge, he is starting to feel more comfortable there. The Indianapolis, Ind. native has continued to familiarize himself with the position in recent weeks, even going through certain situations with Union assistant coach John Hackworth.
"Hackworth is always helping me in practice and I was staying after practice and working on my left foot and going to the left and just scenarios, because it's a lot different than playing on the right side," said Gaddis. "I've played the right side of the field my whole life, so playing on the left is a little bit different but it's good."
As Gaddis has adapted more to the style and speed in MLS, he has slowly started to demonstrate more of the qualities he was known for while with the Mountaineers. Gaddis has been more involved in the attack in recent weeks and his solid performances at both fullback positions have helped the Union try a variety of defensive lineups. A development that has been directly linked to the Union's desire to trade away veteran centerback Dan Califf.
"He's going forward a lot more, he's really adding another dimension to our attack," said Williams. "That's what we want out of our outside backs."
Now, instead of Combine afterthought, Gaddis has emerged as one of the more impressive rookies in the league. He has played so well, in fact, that his form has allowed the Union to put captain and centerback Dan Califf on the trading block. Union head coach Peter Nowak believes Gaddis' speed and versatility can help the Philadelphia defense be more effective, athletic and capable of contributing to the attack. With Califf set to be traded, Gaddis looks more and more like a player who has gone from emergency fill-in to full-time MLS starter.
Not bad for a player not considered good enough for an MLS Combine invitation just four months ago.