Earlier today, Alexi Lalas described the Combine as 'great theater'. He was speaking both to the spectacle on the field and the drama happening throughout the hotel lobbies and bars as both MLS executives and scouts jockey for position and posture. No one really says what they are thinking about given players. They all try to hide their intentions. But there is an art to reading between the lines. Though I am not privy to this side of the combine, I can certainly understand his perspective.
Yet, even watching the Combine from a fan's perspective online, I am enjoying the drama and the spectacle. I spent a decade as a college art professor and dean. The Combine reminds me of Portfolio Review day. These students are about to graduate into the professional world. For one last weekend, they are competing against their classmates and trying to show potential employers that they possess skills that could be of value. For one brief moment in the sun, they have the employers' undivided attention. Some of them are realizing that perhaps they are not as good as they thought. Others are worried that they haven't shown their potential in the best possible light. And yet others are basking in the late afternoon sun of this final scene from their college careers.
Soon this weekend will be a distant memory as they take their places in training camps throughout the MLS. These young men will discover what it means to be a professional athlete and this weekend will have all the solidity of a soap bubble on the breeze. Suddenly they will be competing against more mature men who have been playing this sport at a higher level than any of them have ever known. Players who were stars will be learning new positions and gaining valuable insight watching games from the stands. Such is the nature of transitioning from the world of an amateur to that of a pro.
But for now, there is hope and sunshine. One last moment adrift in the bubble. We can all appreciate the splendor of the bubble, even if we know that it cannot last and that it is to a certain extent artificial.
This is not to say that the exercise is not without merit. Mr. Lalas correctly pointed out that all of the teams will not rely predominately on the Combine to determine who they will draft. Teams have been scouting their favored prospects for months and in some cases years. But the Combine can show some very valuable things. Players from small programs use the Combine to give teams a first taste of their skills. Teams can assess players in positions and formations that may be different than what they played at their college but may be more appropriate for them at the next level. The Combine performance will change the draft order. And we can all get a sense of how rapidly a player adapts to being thrown into a new situation.
This last issue has particular benefit to the Sounders this year. Any players who the Sounders draft, will need to hit the ground running in training camp. The competition will be fierce for a very slim portion of the roster and the Sounders must prepare for Santos Laguna. A draftee who doesn't adapt well to change, runs the risk of not being allowed the time to show what they can do.
I have been fortunate this year to be able to watch most of the first two rounds of games online. I wanted to take a few moments and share my thoughts on what I've seen. This is just my opinion and I haven't been able to follow all of the players. I also don't have any special credentials that make my opinions any more informed than any other fan. This is just a fan's perspective on the event.
I am mostly looking at the positions that I would like to see the Sounders address with developmental depth: Attacking MF, Forward and Defensive utility. I am not interested in the brand names for each of the teams and will simply refer to them as Red, White, Blue and Green. Here's what I think.
The Red Team:
This is the strongest team of the Combine through the first two games. The attacking players hit the ground running and look like they have been playing together for some time. This is actually true of Kelyn Rowe and Chandler Hoffman who both played for UCLA. But these two players have also paired up well with the other attacking players on the squad. Casey Townsend and Hoffman have been two of the top forwards in this Combine. They are both showing themselves well, scoring goals, setting up opportunities, moving into dangerous spaces and showing skill on the ball. Rowe, Luis Silva and Lucky Mkosana have all had good moments during the first two games as Attacking mids. Lucky was left on an island as the lone Forward in the first half of today's game, but otherwise has had a good combine. Rowe showed both his strengths and weaknesses. He's very creative and technically skilled. He's also physically slight. He got his bell rung today and had to come out of the game. This was his last Combine game as he is leaving for the U23 Olympic training camp. But he showed himself well over the two days and his end line cross that set up one of today's goals was sublime. Silva has also had a good combine. Of the Senior attacking MFs, he has had the best combine and should go higher than the SB Nation Mock Draft listed at 16th. I would actually argue that of the available players in that draft, he might have been my choice even with Dwyer being a GA. Callum Mallus, the Scot, has also had a solid combine as has Hunter Jumper. One red player who has looked shaky is Matt Hedges. Going into the Combine he was the consensus top straight CB in this year's draft. (Wenger may play CB depending on who drafts him.) But Hedges has been beaten soundly on a few occasions. His stock has probably fallen a bit.
The White Team:
What a difference a day makes. Or should we say, what a difference a player makes. Ethan Finlay missed the first Combine games on Friday because he was a finalist for the Hermann Trophy. He arrived today with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Within 30 minutes of starting to play, he had the Combine's first hat trick. He scored in multiple ways and looked dangerous every time he touched the ball. More importantly he showed a nose for goal and finishing ability. Kohei Yamada moved to the center of the pitch for the game and quickly took over the role of CAM. He launched the attack. Sam Garza and Luke Holmes both looked equally dangerous with Holmes scoring the other white team goal. On defense, Andrew Jean-Baptiste has been the stud of the tournament. Tyler Polack has looked to be everything he was advertised to be at LB. But for me, the revelation of the day for the White Defense was Andrew Duran from Creighton. Duran played CB in college and in the second half. But in the first half, the coaching staff tried him at RB and he performed very well. A developmental player who can play both RB and CB might be a great option for the Sounders if he is still available in the second round.
The Blue Team:
The Blues looked overmatched today and have only scored a single goal so far. Their forwards haven't really done much and haven't impressed me. Dwyer has had his moments, but hasn't finished anything. Rolfe and Cascio have been mostly invisible. Frimpong has shown some creativity from the wings, but the team struggled today against the Reds. Enzo Martinez looked very good in the game Friday, but struggled to find any continuity today. Quite frankly, the Blues spent most of the game in a defensive shell as the Reds pounded their goalie. Evan James had a very pretty goal to score the team's first of the tournament, but was inconsistent.
Darren Mattocks is as advertised. He came on in the second half and made it a game. In the first half without him, the team looked lost. In a draft class that is already considered very weak at GK, Jhojan Obando would probably like to crawl into a hole about now. This cannot be how he hoped to show himself this weekend. In the game Friday he had a horrible gaffe and then today got shelled for four goals in the first 30 minutes. The Green Defense has not stood out to me at all. I had to look at the roster just to see who was on the squad and after two games I don't recognize any of the names. Not a good sign considering how many goals they have given up (6). A few offensive players who have stood out beyond Mattocks were Aldo Paniagua at CM, Eder Arreola at LM and Andrew Hoppenot at wide forward. Hoppenot got into some good wide spaces today clearing space for Mattocks to operate.
The $50 Dollar Question: Who would look good in Rave Green?
Forwards: Hoffman, Townsend and Finlay
Attacking Mids: Rowe, Silva, Martinez and maybe Yamada with a Supplemental pick
Defense: Wenger (who isn't at the draft), Jean-Baptiste or maybe Duran with a 2nd round or later pick. Polack and Jumper would also be good LB prospects if the team wants to move Tetteh up to the LMF.
Anyone else been wallowing in the spectacle and have an opinion?