Monday, January 12, 2009
Top prospects on display at the combine
Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPNsoccernet
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- What a difference one day can make.
Maryland's Omar Gonzalez saw his form fluctuate during the first two days of the combine. (Scott Bales/Icon SMI)
After a handful of shaky performances by some of the MLS Draft's top prospects on the opening day of the MLS combine on Saturday, there was some concern that maybe the 2009 MLS Draft wouldn't be as strong as some had anticipated.
Some of those fears were eased on the second day as more top prospects played closer to what was expected of them and more lesser-known players gave commendable performances, leaving many MLS coaches and general managers feeling confident that this draft will still wind up being one of the better ones in the past few years and certainly a better one than the 2008 draft, which was widely regarded as a weak draft.
"I didn't think last year was that strong and I think the year kind of proved it because not too many guys gave you minutes," D.C. United coach Tom Soehn said. "This year, I think there's some talent there, but you still have to see how they adapt to Major League Soccer."I think you'll see more impact by far this year than last year.""It's a deeper draft and there's a good balance at all the positions," Chicago Fire coach Denis Hamlett said. "There are some good goalkeepers, some good defenders, a nice group of midfielders, with the forwards maybe being the weaker group without Marcus Tracy and Mike Grella."
Here is how the positions are shaping up at the MLS combine as we stand four days away from the 2009 MLS Draft:
The crop of forwards took a hit when Tracy and Grella turned down MLS offers. Now there is a thinner group, but one that has had some players emerge.
Akron's Steve Zakuani, the draft's top-rated prospect, showed some good glimpses on the first day, but struggled to make much of an impact on the second day. There are suddenly some questions about whether he will definitely be the top pick.
The absence of Wake Forest's Marcus Tracy (who is reportedly signing with Danish club Aalborg) and Duke's Mike Grella, who turned down an MLS offer and is testing the waters in Europe, has left a big void in the forward crop but two players who have impressed at the combine so far are Chris Pontius and Peri Marosevic. Pontius has good speed, can turn on a defender and showed off a blistering shot. Marosevic is a strong holding forward who moves well, gets in good positions and has a nose for goal as evidenced by his two goals so far at the combine.
Among others to impress, South Florida's Jordan Seabrook has shown pro-level speed and an ability to go at defenders, George Mason's Kwame Adjeman-Pamboe is small but very fast and shifty. UC-Davis forward Quincy Amarikwa was impressive on the second day after some mixed results on the first day, but still has plenty of skeptical coaches wondering whether he can make things happen on the pro level.Midfielders
There are several solid prospects in midfield, and while the crop doesn't boast true playmakers, some speedy wide players and some tough and skilled holding midfielders have impressed.
The top-rated midfielder in the combine coming in has done nothing to lose the label. Wake Forest's Sam Cronin is the class of the combine and considered by some coaches/GMs as the one field player who can step in and play right away. It hasn't hurt him that he has been the only player at the combine to do anything with a free kick.
Teams looking for pure playmakers are going to be disappointed because there have been no real revelations in the attacking midfielder department.
Baggio Husidic came into the combine as the top prospect at the position but he has looked slow and heavy, though he has certainly shown a sharp soccer brain and good technical ability. He is probably looking more like a holding midfielder prospect now rather than a pure playmaker.
If anyone showed signs of being a capable attacking midfielder in this class it was College Cup MVP Graham Zusi, who had a quiet first day but showed off his skill more on Sunday. He's a composed and smart player who reads the game well and has helped his stock.
Like Husidic, Maryland winger Jeremy Hall has failed to make a major impact at the combine, but he has shown glimpses of the athletic ability that has some scouts projecting him into the top half of the first round.
Wake Forest's Michael Lahoud looked sharp in central midfield and has a good combination of strength and speed, which makes up for his lack of size (he's 5-foot-8). He can jump into the attack well at times, but can also cover ground and break up plays as well. He has solidified himself as a strong candidate to be a top-10 pick.
U.S. U-20 star Danny Cruz didn't play too well on the first day but was more involved on the second day and looks like an intriguing prospect for teams hoping to find a good prospect late in the first or early in the second round.
As far as wingers go, St. Louis right winger Kyle Patterson has been consistently good, showing an ability to take defenders on, while also being able to cut inside and make good passes. Unfortunately for him -- and really for all of the wingers at the combine -- good crosses have been tough to come by.Liberty's Josh Boateng was arguably the most impressive left winger so far, showing great pace and a desire to play a quick-passing game. University of Tampa's Ryan Maxwell, a native of Jamaica, reminded some of countryman Dane Richards with his speed and trickiness on the right wing.
One tenacious defensive midfield prospect who has some coaches impressed and others cringing, is Jean Alexandre (Lynn University), a big and physical force who was giving out crunching tackles like Halloween candy Sunday. He can also get into the attack when he wants, and showed some flashes offensively.Defenders
This has emerged as the deepest group of the draft, with a deep crop of central defenders helping offset a not-as-impressive collection of fullbacks.
Omar Gonzalez was the poster boy for players who improved tremendously from the first day to the second day. On the first day he looked slow and plodding. On the second day he showed he can move for a big man and he can dominate in the air. His lateral quickness wasn't tested much and remains an area of concern for some critics who think he will struggle with the faster and more clever forwards in MLS. At times Sunday, Gonzalez showed an ability to deal with speed.
Kevin Alston has emerged as the top fullback in the draft. He is quick, closes down attackers well, and transitions into the attack very well. His toughest competition for the title of top fullback, Rodney Wallace, overcame a rough first day with a better second day that clearly showed he's better suited as a left back than a left winger. Some teams are clearly still very high on the Maryland junior.
Another full back to watch is David Hertel, who has been the most impressive left back at the combine, outplaying the more highly regarded Wallace.
One defender who stood out on day one was Santa Clara's Babajide Ogunbiyi. The 6-4 Nigerian was downright dominant and may have helped his stock more than any other player at the combine.
Highly touted South Florida central defender Yohance Marshall has made more mistakes than you would expect from someone who came into the draft regarded as the second-best center back in the draft. He has lost that label, but still has all the physical tools. If only he could've cut out the bad mistakes he would have solidified his place in the first round.Notre Dame's Matt Besler played smart, composed and was consistently well-positioned and is climbing up the center back rankings. George John has good size and an impressive touch for a defender (he was a midfielder at Washington) and looked good for someone coming off of recent knee surgery.Perhaps the best defender of the first two days of the combine has been Maryland's A.J. Delagarza, whose quickness, anticipation, aggressiveness and tough tackling make him a very good player. The only problem? At 5-8, he just doesn't project as a central defender, which is what he has been playing here. Several coaches have been impressed, but they all see him as a fullback on the pro level.
While Delagarza is too small to be a center back, Wake Forest's Lyle Adams looks almost too tall to be a fullback. He's listed at 6-1, but looks closer to 6-3. After a decent first day where his lack of a strong left foot left some coaches wondering why he played left back in college, Adams played right back on the second day and impressed with his size and speed.
Calum Angus looks stockier in build than you expect a fullback to be, but looked solid as a central defender. He isn't looking like a first-rounder though, which he was being touted as before the combine.
One defender who has been steady and stepped up on Sunday is Duke's Darrius Barnes, who contained Zakuani and showed a good blend of poise and athleticism. He is a smooth player who has seen his stock go up.
There hasn't been much for goalkeepers to do at the combine, but that hasn't stopped some observers from labeling this class as a deep and strong one.
Stefan Frei has shown why he is head and shoulders above the other goalkeepers in this group. His positioning is impeccable, his hands are sure. He can kick the ball three quarters of the length of the field and made the tough save the one time he has had to. Frei is a player who will surely have teams trying to trade up and grab him and is probably the player most likely to draw a good transfer fee from Europe in five years.
The rest of the goalkeepers in the combine have struggled to impress because the offenses just aren't testing them with that many shots on goal. Steward Ceus (Albany) is an intriguing prospect whose combination of size (6-6) and athleticism could help him move up. Loyola's Milos Kocic is regarded by some scouts as the second-best goalkeeper here, though he hasn't had much to do.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.