A whole new ballgame
The projected first pick in the MLS SuperDraft, defender Marvell Wynne, wants to be more than just to be a highly-regarded prospect. He would like to be part of a change in soccer.
With the draft just around the corner, though, the UCLA product was focused on the task at hand. In preparation for the MLS combine, a minicamp to assess players before the draft, he had disciplined himself to regain top form after a foot injury some months earlier.
Training partners included fellow draft members Jordan Harvey and Patrick Ianni, as well as young professionals like the L.A. Galaxy's Mike Enfield and the Chicago Fire's Leonard Griffen.
The work paid off in a combine performance that proved to any remaining doubters that Wynne was the real deal. Fleet and surefooted, Wynne displayed both his defensive prowess and his attacking versatility, registering an assist on the final day for his team's only goal.
"There's a lot of good competition out here, a lot of rugged play," observed the 19-year-old right back. "I think I'm getting more comfortable."
Unlike the combine participants who might not ever hear their names called on draft day, Wynne had the security of signing one of the league's Generation adidas contracts, offered only to the highest-caliber of players who depart school early to join the MLS ranks.
Wynne considered his options carefully before deciding to leave college. Despite having caught the eye of many with his assured and athletic performance at the 2005 Under-20 World Championships in Holland, he remained at UCLA for another soccer season.
"After the U-20 tournament I realized that I had a lot to clean up in my technique and the way I play."
Not many players care to admit their weaknesses, but Wynne was candid.
"Technically, what I need to improve the most is my left foot and my positioning behind the ball. My left foot could use some work in terms of power, strength and distance. I'm decently accurate with it. Defensively, when it comes to my shape, I tend to push up forward a lot, because I like to get up my line. What I need to do is hold my shape, give cover to central defenders and basically stay more centralized defensively."
He knew his strengths as well and understood the reasons why so many were high on him entering the league.
"People keep saying I'm the definition of 'If our best athletes played soccer...' or so I've heard," he explained.
Indeed. Yet Wynne has more than a track star's speed and the build that earned him the nickname "Man-Child". He has an All-American pedigree handed down by a father who played the national pastime as a Major League Baseball professional for eight years.
Marvell Wynne didn't really expect that his namesake son would choose another sport, though he took his son's rejection of baseball well.
"He didn't like baseball," admitted Wynne Sr. "He wanted to try something different. He wanted to play soccer. It worked out for him, so I'm very happy about that."
Though the U.S. Soccer Federation offices are located in the city where he was born, Wynne Sr. didn't become aware of the game there.
"In Chicago, it wasn't one of the big sports in the Midwest and I actually heard about soccer when we moved out here to California."
His son, however, grew up with the game, as it was the first sport he ever tried, starting at age three. Unlike many who play soccer for only a few years when they are young, he stuck with it and was undaunted by the game's current second-tier status in the U.S.
"Soccer's growing very big when it comes to youth, but we'd do better if we got more names out there in the world, got USA on the map," argued Wynne.
"We're already ranked high internationally for the World Cup in Germany," he pointed out.
There are generally two schools of thought in regards to the growth of soccer in the U.S. One idea is that the best soccer players in America need to play the world's game in the best and most established leagues in Europe. The other concept is that Americans will only truly embrace the game when they can cheer for their favorite stars locally, in MLS.
The coach with the most wins in MLS, Bob Bradley, believed a natural compromise of sorts was taking place between the two options.
"MLS has done a great job signing most of the young players that come out of either our youth programs or college," said the Chivas USA coach.
He admitted the league had missed out on a few, including Benny Feilhaber and Preston Zimmerman. Both of the youth national team talents had decided to go to Germany.
"There will always be some players who want to look in different places first," stated Bradley.
"In that regard, Preston and Benny decided that their opportunities at Hamburg were good ones. But when you look across the board, I think MLS continues to improve and I think most of the young players in the United States feel it's a great place to start their careers."
Wynne was one. Although he'd received interest from clubs abroad, the same honesty that he used to assess his playing skills led him to turn such offers aside.
"Going overseas was a lot of fun. It was an amazing experience. After about three weeks or so, though, I did miss home. I'm not sure if I was mentally ready to go and play in that sort of atmosphere all the time - away from everything I've been accustomed to."
Besides, he believed there was a different sort of challenge awaiting him.
"I would like to be someone who would inspire others to start playing soccer," he explained.
His father thought it might be possible for his son to draw the same kind of crowds that he once performed for.
"Baseball is pretty successful," said Wynne Sr. "But soccer is getting big here in the U.S. You see it more on TV, and with more fans and people, it's going to have to change."
Even at while playing at UCLA, where the showcase sports are basketball and American football, Wynne had seen progress.
"We always try to inspire as many as we can to come out to our games," he said, then explained that sometimes those athletes of different sports made appearances at his games.
"When they do come, it's crazy. They cheer really loud; they have the letters on their chest. It's amazing. It's really fun when they do come out."
In choosing MLS, Wynne was following the lead of one of his role models, defender Eddie Pope, a national team stalwart.
"Players such as Eddie Pope and Cobi Jones have been here forever. They could have traveled to Europe, but they chose to stay here. That could be in my future, depending on how MLS goes this year. I could find myself being here for a very long time, hopefully."
Of course, it was hard for Wynne to imagine any details of a future in MLS without knowing which team would choose him in the draft.
"I definitely feel as if I'm dust in the wind," admitted Wynne, although he was determined to make the best of whatever outcome. "Anywhere I go, I believe there are positives. I will adapt."
Chivas USA holds first choice in the draft, but Bradley was keeping his plans quiet.
"We still have to listen to offers and see whether we can improve our team more by using that pick or by making a trade involving the pick."
He was glad to have the option, though.
"I think Marvell's a terrific player. Obviously, he's very athletic. He's a good competitor. He did very well in the U-20 World Championships. So clearly, he's a very good possibility for Chivas USA."
Wynne Sr, who was noted in his own playing days for his hustle and effort, could vouch for other intangibles.
"Marvell works very hard. I think he's going to be very successful in MLS. He's talented; he just goes full blast all the time. It's going to pay off for him."
If Chivas USA is willing to trade, there are plenty of other teams waiting.
"Real Salt Lake has the second pick - they've showed some interest." Wynne listed off possibilities.
"Me alongside Eddie Pope - that'd be fun. Also, Columbus, which has the third pick, is coached by Sigi Schmid, who coached the U-20's. I liked the way Sigi coached. If I were to play under him once more, I'd be happy with that."
Yet there was a lot that appealed to him about Chivas USA, including staying near family and the California environment he was familiar with. Though the team has a heavy Hispanic heritage, Wynne wasn't fazed by the need to use Spanish.
"Bien," he responded when asked about the level of his language skills. "I took about three years [of Spanish] in high school."
The chance to work under Bradley was also a plus, since Wynne was well aware that the coach has a reputation for developing young talent.
"He'll see what I need to improve in my game. He'll help me to become a better player. Hopefully, I'll just be able to get out there and get some playing time."
He was looking forward to having where he would go settled.
"I'm nervous, excited and anxious, all at the same time."
Though his experiences were in a different sport, Wynne Sr. had passed along important advice to his son.
"I told him, 'You're going to the next level. It's a whole new ball game. The guys are much bigger, they're much quicker, they're much smarter.'"
"I just want him to be prepared, because it will be a challenge."
Yet the play on the field may be the easy part compared to the dream of bringing soccer to the level of support baseball enjoys in the U.S.
"There may not be as many people in the stands," acknowledged Wynne Sr. "He's going to have to go out there and work harder."
His son viewed himself as just a part of the picture of soccer's rise. "I try not to put that much on my own self. I think everyone playing is carrying a little piece of it."
In spite of his nerves about the upcoming draft, Wynne was optimistic when contemplating the possibilities for the sport in America and its growing popularity.
"It could be a very versatile country. Who knows what would happen if we actually got some of those football players, some of those basketball players, some of those track runners, to actually play soccer?"
As his father can attest, it's already happened.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org