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Sunday, January 11, 2009
Beware standout performances at the combine

Steve Davis

It's early January, which means MLS fans are sinking their soccer-loving teeth into the gooey center of the 2009 combine. With that in mind, here's a little something to remember: Before anybody works themselves into a tizzy over a big performance at the annual showcase, before we anoint someone the latest, greatest combine discovery, let's all just tap the breaks a bit.

The MLS combine, the last chance for teams to finish their scouting of draft-eligible youngsters, is frequently a refuge for overeager overanalysis. It's easy to get worked up over a big afternoon there. We sometimes trick ourselves into thinking that 90 or 180 productive minutes represents a player's true ability, while a career is somehow the anomaly.

Similarly, the wise manager or GM is cautious not to read too much into a deflated combine performance. There are 50 reasons why a talented individual may look average there. Maybe he's playing out of position or is injured. Maybe he's toting the excess baggage of holiday indulgence. Heck, maybe he's just bummed about the decline of the music industry.

None of this is to say that the combine doesn't carry some limited value. It may deserve some consideration. But it's flawed as a significant tool for player analysis, and it tends to be weighted too heavily.

Can a week in Florida really tell the well-prepared scout, manager or technical director something he doesn't already know? That's unlikely, and yet we're all susceptible to getting all hot and bothered about some small-college midfielder who gets by a couple of defenders or aims a couple of decent shots toward goal.

Big performances sway decisions because they are fresh, as the combine always unfolds just before the draft. Presumably, if MLS deciders had more time to think it over, they'd realize that only in the rarest of cases will a player start unlocking some previously untapped potential at such a showcase.

2009 MLS SuperDraft
Jan. 15
St. Louis
2 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

Why are fans so susceptible? Easy. Because there just isn't much else to keep us occupied at this time of year.

Does the name Mike Sambursky mean anything to you? How about Greg Dalby? Or Luke Kreamalmeyer? They were former combine sensations.

Oh, there are plenty of worthwhile showings at the combine. It's just that most of the truly weighty performances tend to come from names we already know. Yes, there are revelations -- but more often a "revelation" tends to be an illusion.

Go back three years to the 2006 combine. (We'll use that one because, by now, the combine "discoveries" have surely grown out of their professional adjustment period and should be reaching productive stage.)

Some who graded well at that year's workouts: Jordan Harvey, Trevor McEachron, Kyle Veris, Jeff Curtin (Jim's young brother), Mike Chabala, Brandon Moss and Mpho Moloi. Ring any bells? Curtin did get some time in Chivas USA's back line last year, although an injury bug at the Home Depot Center certainly helped set the stage for him.

Veris and Harvey may have their day. Otherwise, there's not much sizzle on that steak.

Reports at the time indicated that Justin Moose had exploited the occasion as much as anyone. Wake forest's then-all-time assists leader was already a well-regarded talent going into the combine in 2006.

Still, the words "stock rising" could often be found near Moose's name after the combine. He showed impressive versatility with energetic performances at right back and right midfield during combine friendlies. And just like that, a potential second- or third-rounder climbed to first-round status; he was the No. 7 selection overall, going to D.C. United.

Safe to say he probably wouldn't have gone quite so early if not for the big combine showing. Moose, now with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the United Soccer League, had four career starts in the MLS, which isn't what you expect from a first-round selection.

Of course, every combine has examples of things working as they should. Also in 2006, a young and raw talent began to get some double-takes. Few of us had heard of Josmer Altidore at the time. Now he's "Jozy" and the next big U.S. hope, having assumed that unofficial moniker from Freddy Adu, who took it from Landon Donovan, who more or less was the first to bear the name.

A year before that, however, we had the notable case of Kreamalmeyer. The big name to emerge from a rainy 2005 combine in Carson, Calif., Kreamalmeyer had a decent career at Bradley University but not a spectacular one. But Kreamalmeyer was turned heds at the combine, wowing observers with quickness and skill. He was named combine MVP (do we really need such a thing?) and that surely affected Real Salt Lake's decision to make him a third-round pick.

Kreamalmeyer never made an MLS start. He has carved out a respectable USL career with the Rochester Rhinos. There's nothing wrong with that. But is that befitting a player who was the talk of the combine town four years ago? Probably not.

It's still early, of course, but Chance Myers may well serve as the latest cautionary tale, the latest evidence of why we should cast a weary eye toward the next combine red alert that lights up the soccer blogosphere.

Myers, a versatile UCLA defender coming into last year's combine, was a hit at the proceedings in Florida. A few teams appreciated him going in, but after he quickly ascended to the No. 1 overall pick last January, taken by Kansas City.

It's far too early to render a final verdict on the young defender; precious few MLS rookies did much to get excited about in 2008, not even the first-round picks. But Myers' lack of playing time, not to mention a couple of big blunders when he did see action, certainly has put everybody on notice that his flashy combine may have been made -- partially, at least -- of fool's gold.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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