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Jan 16, 2006

Bull market

CARSON, Calif. -- First impressions count -- or do they? With the MLS SuperDraft just days away, the annual MLS combine constitutes a chance for some teams to get a first look at certain prospects up close and personal. It's unlikely that events at the combine this past weekend will have much impact in terms of the way teams view the upper-tier prospects, but there's no doubt that the combine offers previously unheralded players the chance to raise their profile.

As usual, one has to be careful about how much weight to put on a combine performance. It's no secret that most of the players have not played competitively for quite some time and lack their usual mental agility and match fitness. When you factor in the unfamiliarity that many had with their combine teammates and the fact that many were playing out of position, it makes for a difficult evaluation. One solution that MLS might consider (assuming it can get the NCAA to agree) is to change the timing of the combine to take place nearer the close of the college season.

That said, it's still possible to draw a couple of conclusions from this year's combine crop. First, the general consensus is that while the draft pool is deep in talent, there's a lack of bona fide blue-chippers or difference-makers. As Chicago Fire coach Dave Sarachan noted, "Overall, there aren't many special players here, but there are many solid players."

Perhaps aided in part by the absence of Hermann Trophy winner Jason Garey and midfielder Sacha Kljestan (both were in attendance but did not play due to minor injuries), the defensive players on display largely outshone their offensive counterparts.

"It's probably fair to say the defensive talent at this combine is slightly ahead of the offensive talent," said MetroStars general manager Alexi Lalas.

Here are my general observations from the combine:

Goalkeepers: On the whole, it was hard to be impressed with the goalkeepers on display, although Kentucky's Andy Gruenebaum was clearly the pick of the bunch. Gruenebaum was probably the only MLS-ready keeper at the combine, although he'll need to work on getting down quicker to deal with low line-drive shots. His general positional awareness and ability to handle crosses was solid, though.

Defenders: This is a deep crop, particularly at the center back spot, where it appears a plethora of players are capable of making an impact.

UCLA's Marvell Wynne has already been anointed as the top pick by most observers, the only potential question mark being whether he's capable of playing in a three-back system as opposed to a regular 4-4-2. It's a concern that most MLS teams have dismissed.

"I believe Marvell can play anywhere on the back line," Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley told ESPN.com.

Clemson's Nathan Sturgis probably solidified his status as the top defender outside of Wynne in the draft with a series of cultured displays. At this point, Sturgis is virtually assured a top-five slot.

UCLA's Patrick Ianni spent considerable time playing center back at the combine. He appears more suited to playing defensive midfield at the next level, but MLS coaches are convinced he can swing between the two positions. As one coach said, "I think he can play both [defensive midfielder and center back] -- he'll go early. Great kid, great attitude."

Indiana's Jed Zayner and UCLA's Jordan Harvey are also likely to go high. Zayner looks like a better fit at left back in the pros, while Harvey seemed to improve as the combine went on.

Other defensive players who graded well at the combine were center backs Trevor McEachron of Old Dominion, Kyle Veris of Ohio State and Jeff Curtin of Georgetown. Jeff is the younger brother of Chicago Fire defender Jim Curtin -- and at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Jeff offers an imposing physical presence at the back. There are some concerns about his pace, but his ability to read the game and dominate in the air helps offset that.

Two interesting prospects are George Mason's Anthony Noriega and N.C. State's John Queeley. Noriega needs to work on communicating with his back-line teammates better, but he has the requisite speed and technique, and at 6-4 and 175 pounds, he offers intriguing potential on defense. As for Queeley, opinions on him were mixed across-the-board; some coaches graded him high, others were not quite as impressed. From what I saw, Queeley has speed and great tackling ability, and the potential to play both right back and center back. However, he needs to improve his ability to distribute the ball and defensive positioning.

Midfielders: With Kljestan out of action, all eyes were focused initially on Santa Clara's Mehdi Ballouchy. Ballouchy displayed impressive technique throughout the combine, preferring to operate as a deep-lying midfielder in the mold of a Xabi Alonso. Ballouchy seems guaranteed of being one of the top two midfielders taken and did nothing to damage that status. But, having said that, you can't quite help but feel that at times a player of his ability should give you more.

Outside of Ballouchy and Kljestan, there's no doubt that North Carolina's Dax McCarty and Indiana's Brian Plotkin are the other top prospects, with Wake Forest's Justin Moose probably doing the most to improve his stock.

Hermann Trophy finalist Brian Plotkin received a mixed bag of reviews for his performances. Some coaches felt he hurt his stock a little, others felt he did well. To be fair to Plotkin, he was played at various spots (left midfield, central midfield and left back) throughout the combine, some of which were new to him. Even so, Plotkin is still a likely first-round choice. As in college, Plotkin seemed to drift in and out of games, but he continues to have a knack for making high-impact plays. As one coach said, "He's a good player who passes well when given time. He's one of those guys who understands what he's doing out there and uses the ball very well."

Plotkin's college teammate, Mike Ambersley, didn't fare quite as well. Ambersley looks to be a forward-midfielder tweener. He doesn't have the speed or finishing ability to play up front and might lack the creative mind-set or passing ability to be an offensive midfielder. It might be worth considering experimenting with him at fullback.

Other midfielders receiving plaudits from the coaches were Jeff Carroll of St. John's, U-17 standout Blake Wagner, Washington's Mike Chabala and New Mexico's Brandon Moss.

Carroll's college teammate, Matt Groenwald, received high grades for his character and competitive nature, but on the whole, Groenwald's play was disappointing. He might lack the technical skills required for the next level, but it's never wise to overlook a player with Groenwald's intangibles.

One prospect to keep an eye on is SMU's Duke Hashimoto. Hashimoto appears to be an enigma. He has pace, the ability and willingness to take people on and run at them, and offers a potential goal-scoring threat from midfield. What lets him down at times is his questionable soccer IQ, but he's worth a late flyer in the hopes that his decision making improves with experience.

Forwards: Probably the weakest position on display at the combine. Ironically, Jason Garey's stock may have risen further simply by sitting out, since very few forwards took the bull by the horns in his absence.

The three most explosive forwards on display, in my opinion, were Virginia Commonwealth's Dominic Oduro, U.S. U-17 national team player Josmer Altidore and little-known Yura Movsisyan.

New Mexico's Jeff Rowland and Indiana's Jacob Peterson were expected to pick up the slack, but their combine performances were uneven. Peterson showed only sporadic flashes, and some cited concerns about his temperament. However, a number of coaches admire his proven knack for scoring critical goals in big games.

In Rowland's case, there's no doubting his ability to finish, but it's become clear that he's not the type of forward who can create something on his own. However, Rowland remains a solid prospect. One coach told me he'd had his eye on Rowland for a while: "He's a very hard worker. Always looking to make himself available, played very well in the Final Four. He's a handful and very mobile."

NCAA Division II Player of the Year Christopher Joyce, who hails from Jarrow, England, failed to impress me. Joyce scored goals by the hatful at the Division II level (50 goals in 50 games) and some coaches are intrigued by his physical potential (he's 6-3, 195), but for the most part he seemed to struggle with his first touch in front of goal and with his finishing ability.

One interesting sleeper is Drew Helm of Florida Atlantic University. He hasn't played much soccer in the last two years due to injuries and problems transferring from the University of South Florida to FAU. He might not be enough of an out-and-out goal scorer to be a pure striker, but Helm showed a willingness to run with the ball and impressive cut-back ability from the left midfield and wing spots.

As with any combine, certain players helped their stock more than others.

Stock Rising

1. Justin Moose, Wake Forest -- Wake Forest's all-time assists leader, Moose probably raised his stock more than anyone else at this combine. A bundle of high energy up and down the right flank, Moose offers versatility at both right back and right midfield. As one coach said, "I think he's done very well indeed, his stock has probably risen as much as anybody's."

2. Dax McCarty, North Carolina -- McCarty's stock was already high entering the combine, but after his combine performance, he might be regarded as the third best midfielder in the draft. McCarty is the rare two-way midfielder, equally comfortable in attack or defense and a high-energy spark plug in the center of the pitch. Any concerns about his lack of size were largely dispelled. "He's a good prospect. He's still young and hopefully has some growing to do, but in any case, size won't hold him back," was one coach's comment.

3. Kyle Veris, Ohio State -- At the combine, Veris drew the inevitable comparisons to U.S. national teamer Oguchi Onyewu because of his physical presence at the back and style of play. A converted striker, Veris has only played center back for two years and has a lot of upside. Probably the defensive player whose stock rose the most. "Very good in the air. Physically strong and tenacious, doesn't make many mistakes," said one coach.

4. Dominic Oduro, Virginia Commonwealth -- The Ghanaian looked to be the pick of the forward crop. Oduro displayed great pace, ball control and the ability to flit with ease between forward and right wing. Concerns remain about his ability to finish consistently, but as one coach said, "I like his pace -- he pulls away great, catches your eye a little bit."

5. Jeff Carroll, St. John's -- Carroll comes from a solid soccer bloodline (he's the younger brother of D.C. United's Brian Carroll). At the combine he graded out well, exhibiting a smooth composure in midfield. Some considered him to be the best defensive midfielder on display. "He looks to be a very good professional, goes about his business seriously, hasn't put a foot wrong," said one admiring coach.

6. Yura Movsisyan, Pasadena City College -- Movsisyan has an interesting background outside of soccer, to say the least. He is reportedly in America with his family on asylum from Armenia. As for his soccer skills, he displayed a refreshing eagerness and aggressive willingness to attack the goal. He's not afraid to shoot from any distance and looks like a natural goal scorer with pace and power. Definitely one of the surprises of the combine. "He's done well. He's very lively and dangerous up front," said one coach.

7. Blake Wagner, U-17 -- The general consensus leading into the combine was that the U-17 crop had talent but was unlikely to be able to help a team right away. Wagner's combine performance might have changed that perception as he displayed good technique and an ability to handle both the left back and left midfield slots. "Serves a great ball, he's very comfortable on the ball. He's a potential left midfielder or left back at the next level. The way he passes the ball from deep makes him a very attractive prospect at left back," said one coach.

8. Josmer Altidore, U-17 -- Like Wagner, Altidore turned heads at the combine and probably has the biggest upside of any player in this draft pool. He showed good pace, technical ability and a composure in front of goal beyond his years. He also linked up well with Oduro up front for the adidas Telstar team. Given his age (he's only 16) and his intent to finish school this year, any team drafting him will be doing so with an eye to the future. Said one coach, "I like him. Physically, he's already big enough and has good ability. He's really impressed over the last three days and come out of this looking pretty good."

9. Mpho Moloi, University of Connecticut -- Moloi hails from South Africa and impressed observers with his tenacious play at defensive midfield. It's doubtful he'll ever offer much on the offensive end, but he provides a defensive shield in front of the defensive back line. Said one coach, "Skilled, uses the ball well, good positional sense, he's busy and has a good engine."

Stock Falling

1. Ross McKenzie, Akron -- Didn't really help his cause; despite showing good instincts, he seemed to lack pace and rarely posed a threat. He earned marks for his ability to hold up the ball with his back to the net, but overall did not impress. "Decent, but may have hurt himself," said one coach.

2. Yohann Mauger, Akron -- Like his teammate, McKenzie, Mauger also failed to impress. In midfield he often seemed hurried, and a number of his passes were wayward. He was tried out at left back too but was overmatched there, as Justin Moose went by him frequently with ease. "A hard worker, but average," was one coach's opinion.

3. Willie Sims, Cal State University, Northridge -- The Generation adidas signing was largely invisible and was disappointing to say the least. "Definitely didn't show well at all," was one opinion.

4. Aaron King, N.C. State -- Reviews on King were mixed, although most of his admirers were more fixated on his pace and potential than any actual production. King showed an unwillingness to shoot at times, and despite his breakaway pace, he too often lost balance or seemed unsure in front of the goal.

5. David Chun, SMU -- Chun failed to establish any kind of midfield presence at the combine. He showed good technical ability and vision but seemed to lack confidence and was too peripheral to the action for the most part.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com