Why the MLS combine still matters, even as draft becomes increasingly unnecessary
ORLANDO, Fla. -- DeJuan Jones and Camden Riley were leaning against a wall in a tunnel underneath Orlando City Stadium, a look of satisfaction on their faces. Riley scored in Team X's 2-1 win over Team Nemeziz at the MLS Player Combine. His teammate Jones capped off a week in which he graded off the charts in terms of his athleticism and impressed with his production on the field as well. Each was content in the knowledge that he had increased his stock, in what could be the last ever combine, ahead of Friday's MLS SuperDraft in Chicago.
"I can't think of any better experience in my life, getting to go out there and play and train with the best players in the country out of college," said Riley, a midfielder from the University of the Pacific. "It's an unbelievable experience. I'm trying to take it all in."
Jones, a forward from Michigan State added, "This is the next level, so it's not going to be as easy as it was in college, but you have to step up your game a lot. It's going to be a big transition, but this is a good warmup getting ready for the preseason."
The combine is always a whirlwind. Seventy-two players from across the country arrive in Florida. Over six days they are put up in a swank hotel -- in this case, the Ritz-Carlton -- and then divided into four teams where they engage in athletic performance testing before playing two games over five days, with a training session thrown in the middle. Then there are the dreaded interviews with teams interested in drafting the player.
"The interviews, it was nerve-wracking," said Siad Haji, a midfielder from Virginia Commonwealth. "Just to be able to talk for me is hard, I'm a bit of a shy kid. That was scary for me, but I got used to it. One after the other I got more comfortable, just being myself, throwing jokes here and there."
For the teams, the interviews amount to an insurance policy. They want to make sure that the investment they are about to make will fit in with the team's culture. Some teams employ a sports psychologist, while others are more relaxed. Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin noted that the players are very polished now, adept at deflecting questions, although there are some flameouts.
"They'll come in overconfident or just give a bad impression. That happens a lot," he said.
"Oftentimes, some of the things that the kids say can be pretty comical. You have to have the total package now. Even if there are kids that have scored 20-plus goals, if they walk in the room and you just get a bad feeling from it, your instincts are usually right on that. There were kids who we were very high on going into the interview process where the interview process completely crossed them off of our list. So it is a serious thing."
For D.C. United manager Ben Olsen, the interviews are the highlight of the week, a chance to connect with prospective players that goes beyond what happens on the field.
"I end up falling in love with a bunch of them," he said. "It's a unique process. Very rarely in my life do I get to sit down with young men and kind of grill them a little bit and ask them about their background, where they grew up. Year after year the stories continually blow my mind. I like them."
The insertion of the training session, complete with small-sided games, was a new wrinkle added this year. In the past, the teams would play three games in five days; this time, there was more of a break in the middle. It provided a different vantage point in that players got many more touches on the ball and were forced to make more decisions than in a regular game. Players made more mistakes too, but that was instructive as well to see their reactions. It also helped those players who were asked to play out of position or who are stuck on a bad team, giving them a chance to shine in a different environment.
"We probably could have used it in the past couple of years, but I thought it was a worthwhile experiment," said Olsen about the training session. "It changes things up because now you actually maximize the two games as well. [The training session] won't be as taxing on them and they'll be giving two maximum-effort, full games.
"The third game ended up being a really tricky game in these combines because everyone is f---ed. There's a lot of guys who look good on the [final] day because they're super fit and there's more time on the ball."
Yet there was very much an end-of-an-era feel to the proceedings in Orlando. The reality is that the combine and the SuperDraft that follows have been steadily eroding in importance. The advent of homegrown players, whereby teams can sign their academy products without exposing them in the draft, has diluted the talent pool. For example, Real Salt Lake has already signed four homegrown players this offseason, two of whom spent time in the college game. As manager Mike Petke put it, "I've had my draft already," even as RSL has the 17th overall pick.
The Union, another team that makes extensive use of its academy, went a step further and traded every last one of their 2019 draft picks to FC Cincinnati in exchange for $150,000 in General Allocation Money, with another $50,000 in GAM headed to the Union if certain incentives are reached.
The influx of foreign signings with the help of Targeted Allocation Money has raised the overall level of the league while at the same time making it even more difficult for college players to stick with an MLS team. The relative ease with which green cards are acquired, thus allowing foreign players to count as domestics, applies even more pressure.
Then there's the considerable cost of the nearly weeklong event. Not only does the league (and by extension its teams) have to foot the bill for several days in Florida, but then everyone has to fly to the city where the SuperDraft is being held. Several managers remarked how instead of paying for the combine, a team could use that money to add to its scouting department or increase the headcount on their staff. The sight of several GMs and managers leaving the combine early to get to Chicago for the SuperDraft drove home how the importance of the combine itself has waned.
No decision has been made yet on the future of the combine. It could become purely an event for the second-tier USL. It could be replaced by an MLB-style winter meetings setup, where teams gather for three days to hash out deals. Several teams could also join forces and put together their own combines for specific players in their region, or it could hang around for a couple more years.
"I don't mind coming down to Florida for a week and watching some eager kids play the game they love and seeing a bunch of people that have built this game," said Olsen. "I'm at the point now that I really enjoy the week."
For the players in this year's edition, there was gratitude for the opportunity mixed with a little nostalgia that it might disappear.
"It gave me a huge opportunity," said Jones. "I don't know what they're going to do if they get rid of this. I'm sure they'll come up with something smart, but I was able to come to the combine and kind of make a name for myself."
In terms of the combine, Jones might be one of the last to get a chance to do so.