LAUDERHILL, Fla. – They traveled to this cricket pitch on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale to impress their potential employers. But first they had to find their footing.
The MLS Player Combine places these prospective professionals in a difficult spot: they travel to south Florida, meet their temporary teammates and step on the field within 24 hours. It is as difficult and grueling as it sounds for college kids already trying to work through the nerves generated by this high-pressure situation.
“Everyone's probably suffering a little bit from the jet lag,” Northeastern forward Don Anding said. “Everyone's probably a little tight. But I was excited to get out and play the first game. I wanted to get it under my belt and get settled in.”
Day One allows players to adjust in their own way. Some display their lack of fitness. Others try to work the rust off their touches after the layoff from the college season. A few might even rise to the occasion and show why they are here in the first place. Most just settle for revealing a glimpse of their talent here or there as they wait for another chance to display their wares on Sunday.
In such trying times, even the best players deviate from their usual practices in a bid to impress. Louisville defender and potential top pick Andrew Farrell placed himself into that category when he copped to pressing just a bit too much in order to reinforce his own considerable credentials during his first Combine outing.
“There were a couple of times,” Farrell said. “On one, James [Belshaw, Duke goalkeeper] saved my butt there. I was just trying to get him some reps today. But, no, there are sometimes, I know, where that's something I tend to do. I try to do too much sometimes. I just have to simplify the game. I'll play center back and I play different roles. I just have to determine a position [at the next level]. That will come with playing time and learning from other guys.”
In its own way, the uncertainty of Day One provides insight into the available player pool. The observers watch keenly as each player processes the challenge in his own way. It isn't a smooth transition toward common ground. This year proved no exception to the established rule, though a few moments – Farrell's deft pass to prompt Carlos Alvarez's goal and a couple of fine strikes by Notre Dame midfielder Dillon Powers and Maryland midfielder John Stertzer – highlighted some of the quality on offer.
Everyone involved with the Combine will hope the usual uptick occurs between Day One and Day Two. With one match already in the books and a day of inquisition and rest ahead on Saturday, the players can locate that comfort level before returning to the field on Sunday.
And, if they do not state their case at that juncture, they can at least derive some encouragement from the words of one of the standouts from Day One.
“I just want to play my game,” Alvarez said. “The coaches did their homework already. Most of them know who is good and who is bad, who is unexpected, who is a higher player. For me, I respect everyone, but I fear no one.”
adiZero ends Day One at the top of the table
Game One: adiPower (red) 2, Prime (green) 2: Maryland midfielder John Stertzer (senior signing) opened the scoring after 25 minutes with a low half volley inside the far post for adiPower. Stefano Pinho (youth international) doubled the lead nine minutes after play resumed by turning home Don Anding's (Northeastern) square pass. Carlos Alvarez (UConn/senior signing) corralled a through ball to slot home to reduce the deficit and played Kekuta Manneh (Austin Aztex/Generation adidas) through to equalize after 63 minutes.
Game Two: adiZero (blue) 4, adiPure (light blue) 0: Dillon Powers (Notre Dame/senior signing) drove home from distance to open the scoring after seven minutes. Ashton Bennett (Coastal Carolina) slotted home Andrew Farrell's (Louisville/Generation adidas) sumptuous through ball to double the advantage in the 22nd minute. Luke Spencer (Xavier) and Charlie Rugg (Boston College) added further goals to ensure a comfortable margin of victory.
Quote of the day
“He's a forward, he's a defender, he's everything. To me, he's a great player. The way I see the guy, he's a great player. I have respect for the guy.”
– UConn midfielder Carlos Alvarez on the debate surrounding Eriq Zavaleta's position at the next level
News and Notes
- Farrell drew plenty of attention on Day One after Furman defender Walker Zimmerman (Generation adidas) pulled out of the Combine with an undisclosed injury. His athleticism and his presence on and off the field warrant rave reviews, but his earnest approach dragged him a bit too far out of position and placed him into poor spots on several occasions.
- Alvarez spent a bit of time after his stellar Day One display talking about his discomfort about playing close to Zavaleta. His preferred station in central midfield may prove difficult to locate in MLS, though. Clubs must try to project where he can fit on the field if, as expected, he is forced to move elsewhere. At this point, there isn't a clear answer.
- Zavaleta displayed the type of strength you'd expect from a player of his size despite operating without much support in the first half. He also received some instant feedback after his solid showing from his uncle, former Chivas USA assistant coach Greg Vanney.
- Manneh turned heads with his considerable pace and his tricky operating up front. The key for him over the next two days? Showing enough polish to convince coaches that he won't have to sit and develop over the next couple of years.
- The inevitable comparisons between Virginia Commonwealth striker Jason Johnson and fellow Jamaican forward Darren Mattocks are inevitable, but they aren't entirely fair. Mattocks represented one of the best forward prospects to come out of college over the past few years. Johnson isn't in that class and doesn't possess Mattocks' pace. His indifferent Day One display and his overt preference for his left foot leaves plenty of room for improvement over the next couple of days, though.
- This batch of potentials youth internationals fits right into the usual pattern unless something shifts over the next two matchdays: some nice touches on the ball, but no real future in the league. The best of the lot on Day One – ex-Winthrop midfielder Alex Isern – is already 24.
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