By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 15, 2014) US Soccer Players - The MLS Player Combine is such an odd production. It’s a strange hybridization of North American sporting traditions and the world’s game, a high-pressure audition set in the drowsy tropical sunshine of this polyglot suburb – that seeking big-picture conclusions from it is probably courting danger.
But here goes.
This year’s edition underlines two sobering, but at the moment unsurprising, facts: The United States simply isn’t producing enough elite attacking players. Those that do make their way through to the upper reaches of our system are all too likely seen with a skepticism that borders on suspicion.
That, on some level at least, is yet another sobering reflection of the shortcomings in the way this country grows young soccer players.
In any sport, every draft crop is slightly different from the last, and each year unfolds under its own circumstances. The 2014 edition of the Combine and SuperDraft has solid central defenders and a healthy assortment of good goalkeepers (who, strangely, are mostly foreign-reared).
The rest, according to the prevailing conventional wisdom, is more or less a motley crew of projects, pretenders, and gambles. History suggests that this is not a particularly unusual line of thinking. As a general rule MLS imports its piano players, and finds its piano carriers closer to home. It also hints at a dour truth about the league, and the domestic scene that feeds it the rank-and-file pros who are its lifeblood.
To put it bluntly: It appears that in the eyes of a typical MLS talent scout, American imagination is not to be trusted. Many of the leading attacking prospects in this year’s draft are foreign-born, and those that grew up here are either seen as marginal talents or risky “tweeners” whose value doesn’t stack up to the reliable defenders whose names have climbed into the first-round slots of the first round.
Here’s a quick rundown of a few underappreciated domestic attackers:
Patrick Mullins – Despite two MAC Hermann Trophy awards (given to NCAA Division I soccer’s best player) and a whopping 47 goals over four years at an elite college program, the University of Maryland striker isn’t the clear choice for D.C. United, the club just down the road from College Park who will make the first overall pick on Thursday afternoon. Why? Doubts swirl about his physical tools against rough-and-tumble MLS defenses.
Steve Neumann – Connoisseurs of pretty soccer simply love what the New Hope, Pa. native has achieved over four years at Georgetown: 41 goals and 34 assists in 86 games, delivered with the stylish grace of a true No. 10. Yet, he’s expected to fall outside – perhaps well outside – the top five draft slots due to a laundry list of knocks and excuses: Too slow, too lightweight, too inconsistent, too subtle, etc.
Enrique Cardenas – A diminutive playmaker who rose from obscurity in little Coachella, Ca. to carve out an impressive career at UC Irvine, “Quique” can both pull the strings and patrol the engine room. But at 5-foot-6, 150 lbs., earning the chance to prove that he can become the attacking version of Dax McCarty looks like a tall task.
Pete Caringi III – Scored hatfuls of goals (37 in 79 games over four years) and helped haul University of Maryland-Baltimore County into the national elite under the guidance of his coach and father Pete Sr., who played in the old NASL many moons ago. But both the program and the player appear to be small and too “un-sexy” to truly wow scouts.
Mark Sherrod – Another prolific finisher in high-level NCAA competition (42 career goals at Memphis), he spent time in the Portland Timbers system but may suffer from a perception as a “college toiler” who will struggle to adapt to MLS’ increased speed of both foot and mind.
Thomas McNamara – Honing his nuanced playmaking skills at Brown before testing himself in the ACC as a fifth-year senior graduate student at Clemson, the mulleted New Yorker has an impressive eye for the final pass and a sterling pedigree dating back to adolescence. But he probably just doesn’t look athletic enough to the untrained eye to earn a first-round selection in a process where impressive physical tools tend to be the priority.
Could one of these men turn out to be future MLS standouts and even US National Team members? The SuperDraft’s past is littered with washouts and underachievers, but it’s also given the nation an introduction to truly elite players.
Of course, much depends on where they land. One way or another, the draft picks turned senior members of the US National Team made their way to environments that respected their potential, fostered their continued development, and – perhaps most importantly of all – gave them opportunities to learn and blossom in match action sooner or later.
It’s harder than ever for MLS clubs, even the worst ones, to guarantee this to their draftees. The league has gradually loosened the shackles governing international acquisitions. With the pressure for short-term results growing all the time, tapping into the steady and relatively affordable supply of South American playmakers and goal scorers may appear like a lower-risk proposition than waiting for domestic kids to shine.
The problem runs deeper, to be sure. Even after multiple waves of innovation and evolution, US youth development infrastructure still struggles to reliably cultivate attackers with vision and technique.
There’s plenty that MLS technical staffs can do to help. It starts with giving our own creative kids a chance.
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