More than sixty hopefuls from the Combine will soon hope to find out if their efforts in the long weekend's six games have been enough to earn them a spot on an MLS roster. 38 players will be selected over two rounds of the SuperDraft in Indianapolis on Thursday, before a further four rounds of supplemental drafts take place.
Of the apparent big winners of the Combine, Andrew Farrell of Louisville consolidated his reputation as a possible number one pick, which would land the strong young center back at Toronto FC (who also hold third pick in the SuperDraft). The versatile playmaker Carlos Alvarez has already been told by new Chivas USA coach Chelis that he will be drafted with the second pick and of the players who maybe played themselves into contention over the weekend, there could be a high pick too for Canadian national Kyle Bekker, who showed himself as an assured central midfielder with strong distribution and set piece instincts.
For the uninitiated, the Combine is an extended trial that sees the top college players, plus a sprinkling of invited youth internationals and Generation Adidas (GA) players play for one of four squads, who each play each other over five days of competition. The GA players are a small selection of standout players nominated each year, who among other things come with the added incentive, for drafting teams, of their wages not counting against the salary cap. Since 2010 the international invitees have been a gradual addition to what was once exclusively a collegiate draft, as MLS wrestles with the long term implications of the academies beginning to expand in importance and the globalization of the game.
Those meta-considerations were far from the minds of this year's hopefuls though, as they auditioned for their futures under the watchful eye of every MLS team's technical staff, hunched forward on field-side benches. Between games the coaches would adjourn to the second floor of a clubhouse to review progress and perhaps negotiate a little with their peers on possible trades for draft picks - Toronto in particular might feel that they can leverage their number three pick for a team that wants a strong prospect like Walker Zimmerman, say. That sort of move would allow them to pick up a more proven player who can impact immediately as they try to turn things around from a dreadful season last year.
Other teams who've traded away their rights may also be jostling to get back into the order. Portland Timber's new coach Caleb Porter obviously made his name in college soccer and is very familiar with the current crop of youth players - and despite his team having traded away their first two round picks he was a ubiquitous figure at the Combine, suggesting the Timbers may again be traders on draft day (as they were in last year's only draft day trade that sent Kenny Cooper to the New York Red Bulls).
While the MLS coaches are in relaxed mood - enjoying the chance to network in the Florida sun during the only time of the year when nobody has a losing record, the games themselves are understandably nervous affairs. Every misplaced pass or error draws a wince from the player involved. On the second day prolific young Jamaican striker Ashton Bennett slid a neat ball through for an assist, seconds after missing a one-on-one chance. Even as he congratulated the scorer you could see him perhaps calculating the net effect of the sequence. And his countryman and fellow top prospect Jason Johnson had a frustrating first couple of games before bursting through to score a late goal in one game, that looked like the product of a boxer realizing he's well behind on points and needs a knockout.
How much these moments change coaching teams' impressions is an unknown variable - players don't often fall dramatically down the standings during these games (though there's always one, like Enzo Martinez last year, who seems to slip down the order). That said, there are always players who make an impression and force their way into the reckoning. Last year that player was perhaps Kelyn Rowe, who New England took with the fourth pick. Aside from Bekker, other players who had coaches checking their notes this year included Oregon State's Emery Welshman and Santa Clara's Erik Hurtado.
So there was still plenty at stake within an otherwise rather informal environment. The games took place at a small stadium at a regional park in Lauderhill, on what is normally a cricket field. A hard dusty square near the far touchline from the stands reminded spectators of the normal use of the venue - and players on that wing struggled for purchase and control on the rock hard surface. Perhaps mindful of the impression this gave on camera, by the second day's play the patch had been hastily painted green - shades of Pele's arrival in New York, when the superstar was flown by helicopter over the disguised dirt patches of Randall's Island stadium.
No Pele-types immediately visible on the field here, but a perfectly serviceable batch of young players hopeful of getting their first start in the professional game on Thursday. As the players left the field on the last day I spoke with Machael David, an expected late round pick, who has done extraordinarily well to be here at all, after starting life as a street kid in Nigeria and ending up at UC Santa Barbara and now the SuperDraft. Played out of position in previous games, the young defensive midfielder had just had a chance to play in his natural position and did so neatly. I asked him how he feels:
This was me... I'm just happy I got the chance to play my game... I'm not after the glory - I'm happy to do the dirty work. I'm not in this for the money - I'm looking for an assignment.
He won't be the only one. Watch this space...
What sort of player does your team need in the draft? And what are your predictions for what they'll get? Please leave your comments below. Joe Prince-Wright and I will have live coverage of Thursday's SuperDraft, so be sure to join us for that and tweet and email us as we go.