Now that the 2008 MLS Draftapalooza has passed into history, and each team's fans happily swap learned, detailed observations about the relative merits of a bunch of young players they'd never heard of before last Friday, some reflections, observations and questions come to mind:
First, the Combine: from all accounts, the quality of play, which was never particularly high to begin with, has steadily deteriorated to a level generally associated with city parks, midriff bulge and Sunday afternoons.
Now we all know that the event mostly serves as an opportunity for all the MLS Old Boys to spend some quality Hotel Bar time with all their mates from days gone by, and that's fine with me. I'd be the last person to argue with every American's God-given right to an expense account beer buzz.
But judging by the actual draft selections five days later, one has to wonder if the entire combine format doesn't need a serious overhaul, starting with the usefulness of tossing 11 total strangers, most of whom haven't played the game seriously in well over a month, out on a field without a single practice session.
The guys who are built like NFL cornerbacks, with a 40" vertical and a 4.3 40 get oohs and ah's from the assembled coaches, or at least those among them not too hung over to notice.
Meanwhile, the guys whose game depends on timing, recognition, vision and combination play - you know, the guys who actually play soccer - are just about getting in sync with their teammates as the whole thing is wrapping up.
Then the coaches all pack up and move to another hotel, this time in the city where the draft will be held. Changing venues is a good thing because by that time the barmaids at the last place are hip to what lousy tippers these guys all are and they can't get table service anyway.
They then hold long meetings, compare notes, look at films, make final evaluations and then, come draft day, they ignore it all and draft anyone with the letters "GA" after their names. I swear if you signed Richard Simmons to a GenA deal he'd go no later than mid second round. Rosy O'Donnell might last until early in the third.
GenA players are like crack to these guys; in a league like MLS, where they feel they can't afford to pay most of the draftees more than $1,075 per month, the thought of having a guy making $70k who isn't going to cost them a dime and who won't have to emulate the Crew's Brandon Moss and take a part time job as a poop scooper at a dog kennel is simply too much to resist.
Nobody cares what kind of combine these guys had. All they care about is that they're free. If they eventually turn into useful pros, all the better. If all they ever amount to is a glorified practice dummy, like Devin Barkley, well, at least he didn't cost anybody anything.
I think the definitive statement about the MLS Combine was made this year by new Galaxy HC Ruud Gullit. He showed up for the first day, spent most of it standing around chatting with Thomas Rongen and paying no attention whatever to the on field activities, after which he declared that there weren't "10 players" who were worth offering a professional contract to.
Then after less than 24 hours in Ft Lauderdale, he announced that he still had some packing to do, boarded a plane for Holland and hasn't been seen since. Alexi and Cobi ran the Gals draft table in Baltimore. Gullit was nowhere to be found. LA fans were reportedly unhappy about Ruud's lack of respect for the process. Personally, I would have been more alarmed at the prospect of Alexi Lalas picking my players.
Honestly, I think this "The Emperor has no clothes" attitude is just what this whole process needs. Since all the coaches are really interested in is GenA's and athleticism, then let's dump this whole charade. Run it like the NFL combine, with physicals, interviews, intelligence tests and a bunch of guys with stopwatches.
The league keeps telling us over and over how they want to "raise the level of play" and give us "more attractive soccer". This is MLSSpeak for "we're scouring the globe for talented foreign players". When it comes to Americans, all they're looking for are sprinters and big, physical athletes.
In fact, if this years Combine and Draft have taught anybody anything it's that a lot of guys would be better off not showing up at all. Anthony Beltran, Rob Valentino and Michael Videria all claimed to be injured and couldn't participate. Beltran and Valentino went in the first round and Videria went early in the second.
Joe Lapira of Notre Dame couldn't attend because he was in Europe trying desperately NOT to have to play in MLS, but he still went in the third round.
Meanwhile, Xavier Balc, unanimous Big Ten PotY and First Team Div I All American, who was widely viewed, before the combine, as a sure-fire first round pick and clearly the most skilled pure soccer player in the entire draft, showed up at the combine still dinged up from his team's run to the NCAA Championship Final, but determined to play.
As you might expect, it took him and his teammates a couple games to figure each other out, and for his teammates to understand that if you made the run the ball would miraculously appear at your feet. By that time the coaches weren't paying attention. All they knew for sure was that he wasn't terribly fast, and Balc not only dropped out of the first round, he dropped out of the draft altogether.
Mo Johnston, after stocking up on defenders in the Superdraft, was so shocked to find the kid still available when his turn came in the Supplemental that he took Balc and then quickly hung up the phone, passing on his last three picks.
Perhaps he was worried that someone might notice he just stole the "the best pure will power game changer in the pool" (per Buzz Carrick of 3rdDegree) for a bag of magic beans and make him give the kid back.
Maybe after this year the better players in the draft will realize - as NFL prospects did a long time ago - that there's no up side for them in the combine. If you're likely to go high, why take your game to Florida for a bunch of drunks who could be replaced by a small band of Rhesus monkeys with stopwatches?
And of course, if you're a GenA, you can show up and trip over the touchlines all day. MLS coaches will love you anyway.