A Take on the MLS Combine from Brian Schmetzer

Brian Schmetzer shares his experience at this year's MLS Combine.

Brian Schmetzer and I had attended the five MLS combines together. This year I was in France on some other soccer related business, so Schmetz was on his own.  I have been continually impressed by Brian's ability to assess talent on the pitch, and this year was no different.  He came back from the combine with a list of players that he thought would move up in the MLS Super Draft, and those who would move down. There were a few surprises and I believe Brian’s comments and notes will be interesting to fans

– Adrian Hanauer

Going to the Combine is nothing new for me personally, but this time around I was taking a different approach. As coach of the USL Sounders, I’ve been going to Florida to watch soccer on 85-degree January days for the last few years. Adrian is my boss at the Sounders, and he’s also the GM for the MLS club, so he has asked me to look not only for players this coming season in the USL, but also those who may be able to play in the MLS in ’09.

It’s little more work to watch from two different viewpoints, but there have been players we’ve seen and liked at previous combines who, a year or two later, have landed with us. Taylor Graham is a prime example. So if we feel a player can play at the MLS level, the Sounders will keep tabs on him and try to sign him if possible. That’s because ’08 Sounders players have the ability to negotiate first with MLS Seattle.

At the combine, everyone associated with the soccer side of MLS is there. Coaches and their entire staff, GM’s and even some owners. Agents are very visible. They work hard to sign those players who arrive without representation, and also talk to coaches about their clients. Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, and some of the national team coaching staff are on hand, providing insight to MLS coaches about those players in the U-18 through U-23 programs.

Of all those attending, the key guy may be Todd Durbin, who is in charge of all league player contracts. Everyone wants to talk with Todd so they are certain of signing a drafted player.

Deals tend to get done back at the hotel in the evening, usually over a meal in the restaurant or at the bar. Everyone has time for coffee and conversation if the subject is a proposed trade of proven veteran for some young stud.

Out at the game fields, the conversation about players is limited. No one wants to give away any edge in his efforts to find the next Maurice Edu. For me, it’s a good test of how my knowledge of players compares to the rest of the MLS coaching fraternity.

I enjoy seeing my old friends Preki (Chivas USA) and Fernando Clavijo (Colorado), and we joke about how we’ve aged. I’m familiar with many of the other coaches, and they all treat me well. A couple years ago, Sigi Schmid sat down and answered a ton of coaching questions. When Bob Bradley was still with Chivas USA and Preki was his assistant, I got a similar opportunity. This year I had a good time talking with Dominic Kinnear (a former Sounder) of Houston and I met with Dennis Hamlet, the new Chicago coach. We share common memories of our days playing in the CISL. I met with some fellow USL coaches as well.

All of these coaches come to the Combine to watch three games. With input from college and pro scouts, the MLS has formed four teams, which are made up of players from college, Generation adidas and two or three young internationals. We all take notes and rate the players based on our team needs and personal preferences.

The players are thrown into a very competitive environment, and they all are anxious to show well. The ones who did the most running in the offseason are easy to spot, as are those who are not fit at all. Players need to rest because three games in four days are tough. With so many trying to shine, the play sometimes gets sloppy. If they do the simple things well, we will notice.

Then came the draft, and there were some surprising selections. Players who are drafted higher than expected make you think, “Did I miss something?” or “They’re nuts!” Perhaps it has something to do with the personality of the coach, a trade which is in the works or just a plain, desperate need. It all adds up to some dramatic picks. For those who drop in the draft order it usually is a direct result of their combine performance. They are playing against the best college players and if they are not injured or have a legitimate excuse and they do not show well, questions arise.

For the Sounders’ sake, we were hoping some players might go undrafted and therefore become available to sign. As for the Washington kids, we knew Ciaran O'Brien was going to be drafted. Ciaran is a Generation adidas player and has trained with the Sounders since he was 1, so I take some measure of pride in the fact he has done so well. I played against Fran O'Brien, his dad. His older brother Leighton is the leader of my most successful teams. The O’Briens are a true soccer family.

George Josten is a relative unknown, except to Einar Thorarinsson, his coach at Gonzaga, but he proved his worth at the combine. Actually George is one of those I wished had slipped through the cracks because he has a lot of potential. His teammate, Austin Washington, was drafted by Columbus in the 4th round which shows how well Gonzaga did this year. Einar has worked his magic at that small, basketball crazy school, starting with Brian Ching, then Zach Scott (a member of the Sounders) and now two more on their way to the pro's.

Ely Allen from the UW played for me at the youth level so I have a soft spot for him. Ely’s is a very talented soccer player and you can understand why he was picked 21st overall. Adrian and I spoke with Ely and his parents about the USL Sounders and playing in Seattle in '09 but these young men have dreams and they want to see what they can do now. He’s a great pick for LA.

Finally, I do feel bad for Kevin Forrest, but it may work out well for the Sounders. The UW's leading scorer during his junior year, Kevin was just coming back from a foot injury which cost him the majority of his senior year and he was not selected in the draft. I spoke to him and he was disappointed, but he is hoping to get picked up in the MLS supplemental draft. If it doesn't work out for him this year at the MLS level, and he still chooses to give pro soccer a chance, the USL Sounders may be his best shot at making it to the MLS in '09. We shall see,