Pro scouts assess intangibles and not just talent
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Getting noticed at an event like Disney's Soccer Showcase is the entire purpose of attending.
Still, there are levels of getting noticed. There's getting noticed by an Atlantic Coast Conference coach. And, then there's getting noticed by, say, a Premier League scout.
The 416-team tournament, held at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, enabled thousands of high school soccer players to display their abilities on one of the U.S. youth soccer scene's biggest stages. (Full disclosure: ESPN is owned by Disney.)
Far less conspicuous than the college coaches dressed from head-to-toe in university apparel were the professional and national team scouts in attendance.
For those scouts, the process of finding top players begins when players are often too young to be garnering much interest from the college recruiters. That's only the beginning. The real test is identifying the potential of these players far beyond a college career.
The International Club Scout
Sure, Jorge Alvial was wearing a shirt with a Chelsea football club logo, but with dozens of other spectators donning gearing from their favorite clubs from Barcelona to Manchester United to various MLS clubs, it was easy to miss the legendary English club's international scout.
Which allowed Alvial to do his job -- simply watch the players on the field. It's something he does hundreds of times a year, looking for just one player that might be of interest to the Premier League club.
"Let's say I like a player here," Alvial said during the boys' portion of the showcase. "I'm not going to go, 'OK, I'm going to take this player.' I follow him for three to six months to see if he is what I saw that day. I get to know his family, his attitude, what he wants to really do in the future."
The Chelsea scout estimates that during the course of a year he follows about 10 youth players that catch his interest.
"To take one, it's a different story," he said. "It takes a lot more than just to follow them. I have to see him at the national team. How he does in qualifying for the youth World Cup."
How a player performs in those situations is just one part of the equation. Alvial watches to see how players participate in practices and warm-ups.
"I travel all over South America, Central America and, of course, the U.S., and hopefully I can find one kid they can take," Alvial said.
While Alvial actually follows just a dozen or fewer youth players a year, he notices many more.
"I have a list of names of different players and different stars that I put in, just to see how their progress is," he said. "If they're progressing really fast, then I make sure I take them before someone else does."
The National Team Scout
Thomas Rongen spent considerable time observing players with a critical and experienced eye. As 16 and 17-year-old players took the field, the U-20 men's national team coach, searched for potential future members for his squad.
Superstars are easy enough to find, Rongen said, referring to players the caliber of Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu. Identifying young unknown players who will be able to contribute to the United States' success on an international stage is the real challenge.
"To find the diamond in the rough so to speak," Rongen said. "The one that might not shine right now, but might potentially shine in four years."
He cited Clint Dempsey, the only American to score a goal in the 2006 World Cup, as an example of one of those players. A player that wasn't highly scouted at 16 or 17, but one that managed to grab his interest.
"Stories like those are special and good stories which prove that there's players out there that we sometimes don't find at this early age for various reasons," Rongen said.
When the process starts four years out, it's easy to see how players might get overlooked. "Some kids that are very talented right now, for some reason don't make it in three years," Rongen said. "It also comes down to at the end of the day how determined are they, how dedicated are they, how much they want to succeed. Talent is a starting point, but a lot of times, it's not the only thing that will make them great players."
With substantial experience as a coach in Major League Soccer, as a head coach with three teams, Rongen also looks at players' abilities and potential to make it to and succeed in the pro ranks.
"My situation is obviously a little different then a college coach because I look beyond (a four-year window)," Rongen said. "If you look at my current group, I'd say about 70 percent of the players are professional players. So you're looking at can these (U-17) players in two to three years play in a professional environment?"
That's of course in addition to their ability to represent the United States on an international stage.
Rongen said he still feels going pro early -- as a handful of U-17 players already have before even turning 16 -- should be the exception.
As someone who knows the MLS environment, Rongen doesn't feel that most young players are mature enough to handle that type of responsibility. However, he said the tug-of-war between college programs and professional scouts is healthy.
"We're allowing players to make choices now," he said. "They can turn pro at a young age like Freddy Adu ... and then there's kids here that will end up in college."
Even if players end up going to play at a school like Wake Forest or Maryland, that rarely disrupts what scouts are looking at which is the big picture even further down the road.
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.