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The Designated Player: At the MLS Draft Combine

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“It was tough out there on the wing — that side of the field is really hard. I think they use it for cricket … ”

I’m talking to a young hopeful at the MLS Combine, the selection trials for the SuperDraft, after he has dragged himself off the field to talk to the few reporters gathered here at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium. I look out in the general area of where he is pointing, and see that there is indeed a dry, hard square of dirt at the far side of the field, large enough to accommodate a particularly unforgiving wicket, if not being quite so accommodating to a sprinting soccer player’s cleats. The player looks irritated — the state of the field out there has compounded his frustration at being played on the wing instead of his normal forward position, and he feels he hasn’t done himself justice on the biggest stage of his footballing life so far. As he slopes off to the locker room, he gives another last grimace at the dusty patch of ground. It’s doubtful that he’ll be consoled when he returns for his next game two days later to find the dirt has been painted green. Welcome to the lowest rung of MLS.

I wasn’t going to come down from New York for the Combine — the annual event in which 60 or so hopefuls are put through their paces in front of MLS coaching staffs in the hope of earning a SuperDraft selection. Prior to covering the SuperDraft last year, I had watched the Combine on a pixelated MLS feed, and had felt that a combination of that plus the various mock drafts executed with relish by the wonkier end of the U.S. soccer cognoscenti were plenty to get a sense of things. But this year I’d been kicking around another story idea featuring an interview subject living half an hour from Fort Lauderdale and I’d remembered someone saying to me that the Combine was one of the best places to speak to MLS coaches (because let’s face it, aside from all being in one place, they’re as relaxed and open as they’re going to be all year right now, when none of them has a losing record yet). So at the last minute I muttered something about “networking” and “it is work” to my wife and headed down to Florida.

If the Combine is big news in Fort Lauderdale, it’s hard to see sign of it as I’m driving in. The biggest attraction in town is suggested by a home-made poster on a pedestrian bridge advertising a forthcoming screening of Zero Dark Thirty. Other billboards mutedly plead the case for forthcoming gun shows and orchid expos, apparently at the same versatile venue. When I finally drive past the giant swap meet by the highway and arrive, I find that Central Broward Regional Park’s stadium is actually a loose collection of stands built around one side of a large staked out circle accommodating the cricket field. At the other, unpopulated, side a simple barrier barely breaks the impression of an endless field of grass — reminding me of a sun-drenched version of Brian James’s description of Carlisle’s Brunton Park: “the notion that a ball kicked over the fence would go on bouncing until it dropped off the end of the world is hard to shake off.” The end of some young men’s small soccer worlds will come this weekend, but in the general understated environment of the Combine it’s hard to spot a sense of occasion. Perhaps that’s no bad thing for the nerves of the participants, but such atmosphere as there is feels like it might dissipate at any moment.

It’s hardly helped by the soccer on view on Day 1. The first game starts like a bad 10-year-old’s pickup game. Anxious for touches to impress early, players end up bunched in high lines for the first half, as the ball pinballs around among them. It’s a traditional first-day mess, and perhaps only the center backs stand out — cleaning up the ball decently at the edge of the fray. Meanwhile, the rest of the players struggle to gain traction in the melee. Jason “J.J.” Johnson, the raw but talented young forward who has drawn comparisons with C.J. Sapong, is one of those who played out of position, and he looks tentative on the wing, playing just in front of the low line of temporary bleachers that has been installed for the MLS coaches to observe the young players up close. At first what these coaches see is a young man with a flashy haircut, boots, and earrings, not doing much to add to a striking first impression.

Gradually the game stretches a little and the two attacking playmakers for each team begin to impress with some neat touches. UConn’s Carlos Alvarez gets himself a couple of goals, much to the satisfaction of Chivas USA’s new coach Sanchez “Chelis” Sola (Alvarez’s father once played for Chivas Guadalajara), who will later declare his intention to take the player with his no. 2 overall pick. Chelis might have been given food for thought, though, by the performance of Mikey Lopez on the other team — the slight, young midfielder has an assured game, and indeed his stock will rise throughout the weekend.

Noting these developments, I’m continually reminded how this is an alienating way to watch a game — basically running a parallel mental leader board alongside the action (to be reordered momentarily). Individual moments of skill or errors are always talking points in the sport, but at the Combine the games themselves are simply frames for individual moments. Every time a goal is scored there’s less a sense of excitement at how this narrows or blows open the game, or changes its momentum, than a sudden jarring reminder that all these “phrases” we’re focusing on are meant to add up to something like a recognizable story. It’s a little like trying to imagine sound by reading the numbers in a digital sample.

So back at the opening game, there’s a sudden burst of movement as a routine ball out of the back sees Johnson spin, turn, and lose his marker as he sprints to the edge of the box before crossing for teammate John Stertzer to score. You can see all concerned walking back to their starting positions playing the moment back in their heads and wondering what they’ve just done for their stock. As Johnson jogs back to the halfway line, a little lighter on his toes for his part in the goal, the player who was marking him seems to be visibly shrinking as he slowly turns back to his position. Meanwhile, in the stands, members of the press, family friends, agents, and college coaches look at their list of starters and ask each other “Who scored? Stertzer? He’s looked decent actually.” Shuffle. Recalibrate. Repeat …

I’m surrounded in the stands by now-familiar faces from the MLS circuit. Sprawled over three rows, the ESPN posse are holding court: Alexi Lalas laid back and offering laconic asides, Taylor Twellman always ready to prod the group with a goofy comment. As the game unfolds and the non-playing teams on the far side of the field are measured for how high they can leap, Lalas starts a debate on how useful a metric that could possibly be, when it doesn’t simultaneously measure a skill like heading. In the next minute he shrugs off some good-natured taunting from colleagues at the sight of the long-haired Greg Cochrane looking lively as an overlapping wingback: “He’s got long hair — he should have good music taste, Alexi” (at last year’s draft, Lalas’s on-air color commentary on players lower down the order tended to revolve around the bands they liked). Another Lalas, Greg, the MLS digital editor, is glancing up at the assembled crowd to wonder how many total Twitter followers are represented here. When the stand does respond in unison to something, it’s not to a goal, but the Twitter news that Alex Morgan has been allocated not to Seattle, but Portland.

It’s not that those watching don’t care about what we’re watching — the occasional, suddenly tensing shoulders of a spectator indicates a parent or coach who clearly cares to a fault, or one of the ESPN group will lean forward, stab their notes and start whispering urgently at something they’ve just seen and why this means “he doesn’t convince me” or “that’s what he can do right there.” The general lack of focus is because the game itself, and the score produced by it, is utterly secondary to a process we can only guess at, namely what the assembled coaches down in front of us are thinking.

And there is a secondary theater at the Combine of watching said coaches interacting all in one place. There’s Philadelphia’s John Hackworth, making his way on and off the field without any entourage, stopping to talk affably to fans; Bruce Arena is in full training gear at the heart of his ever-expanding L.A. Galaxy huddle, looking relaxed and in his element close to the halfway line; Ben Olsen and Dominic Kinnear are ever present down on the benches, too, though more studiedly focused than Arena as they watch the games — even Olsen’s apparent jokes seem intense. Meanwhile the Toronto and Chivas technical teams enjoy a kind of inverted stardom — their poor finishes last season give them the high draft picks this year. New Portland boss Caleb Porter is circulating everywhere — perhaps hoping he can trade Portland back into the first two rounds for one of the college players he knows so well from his years in Akron.

Not everyone is front and center. There’s little sign of Seattle’s Sigi Schmid, for example — though he is here, watching the games from the second floor of the clubhouse. So too are the New York delegation of interim head coach Mike Petke and technical director Ricardo Campos. Contrary to message-board leaps of logic, there’s no particular intrigue to where any coaching team watches the game from, or why — and in line with the idea of preseason bonhomie, all are approachable. Petke jokes to me about how he “can die happy, now that I’ve coached my hometown club,” following his two-month offseason stint since Hans Backe’s departure. Even Arena wanders over to share a few words, noting of the media mock drafts, “You guys treat it like it’s a science … ” and suggesting the reality is much more prosaic.

“Pick the best left on the board regardless of position” has been the Galaxy’s mantra in recent years, though their successful recent seasons and subsequent low picks have meant that that’s a fait accompli as much as a policy. Their last high pick was in 2009, when they landed Omar Gonzalez (who turned out to be the best on the board from the start).

The last 10 minutes of the game get messy again, as players both tire and lose discipline. Those within any sort of reach of goal now start hitting wild shots that they hope might knuckle spectacularly to propel them to a draft position. None go in, and the ball boys and girls are kept busy scrambling through the empty stands beyond the goals. Finally the game ends and the two sides troop off to be replaced by the players from the other two teams, and the next game quickly gets under way. I’m still talking with a disappointed Jason Johnson about his hit-and-miss performance when midfielder Dillon Powers opens the scoring in that next game with a thumping shot. Johnson’s eyes flicker to the game behind us, “Well, I suppose it’s good to get the butterflies out of the stomach on Day 1.”

I wish him luck, and for once find myself truly meaning that end-of-interview platitude. I find that happening repeatedly over the next few days. Even the most feted of these young players faces an uncertain path ahead — most of them have at least acquired a college education, but even those who’ll now segue into decent, if not exorbitant, starting salaries as Generation Adidas players still face a long route toward anything like stable careers. And speaking with one young player, Machael David, of whom more soon, he remarks that with his college career over he’s basically homeless if he does not find a team. We both know he has had injuries and is a long shot to go in the first two rounds, but as with Johnson I wish him luck, and promise to revisit his extraordinary personal story.

When you see the players up close, en masse, you’re reminded of how young they really are and what this represents for them. At one point in the weekend, I walk in front of the clubhouse to make a call and find myself standing a few feet behind Mikey Lopez and presumptive no. 1 draft pick Andrew Farrell as they sit on a concrete ledge happily watching the two other teams play, only for one of the Combine coaches to shout at them to get inside and get ready for the bus. As they scramble to their feet, reaching for their kit bags, they look not like budding superstars, but guilty kids. Kids who just want to play.

Andrew Farrell was drafted no. 1 overall by New England Revolution. His roommate at the Combine, Jason Johnson, was drafted no. 13 by Houston Dynamo. Carlos Alvarez (2) went to Chivas USA as expected, and Mikey Lopez (14) went to Sporting Kansas City.

Machael David was interviewed by three MLS sides, but was not selected in the SuperDraft and will now enter the Supplemental Draft on Tuesday.

In Part 2 of this story, we speak at length with two of the young hopefuls from the Combine, Andrew Farrell and Machael David, about the draft and the extraordinary personal circumstances that brought them there.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.