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Jan 15, 2008

2008 combine notable for defensive talent

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If there's one central theme of the 2008 MLS combine draft crop, it's that we can all agree to disagree. This year, even more so than in past years, it was hard to find consensus among the coaches and general managers as to the various merits of each player or even agreement on the overall level of talent itself.

While some coaches feel that the draft pool this year is weaker, "I feel that last year was a little bit deeper than this year," Chivas coach Preki said; others feel that this year's crop is actually an improvement. "I would say it's a deeper pool," D.C. general manager Dave Kasper said. "I think in terms of quality there's more players that have a shot to make it in the league."

Regardless of one's belief when it comes to the overall depth, there's no doubt that what this year's draft lacks is a bona fide, clear-cut, blue-chip stud prospect. That fact is further highlighted by the lack of a defining standout performance by any individual at the three-day combine. Talentwise the combine showcased several goalkeepers and defenders who will seemingly make the transition to the next level with ease, but on the downside suffered from a shortage of players who appear capable of making an impact offensively in the pros.

That said, here are my impressions of the combine:

Goalkeepers

If you need a goalkeeper, you're in luck, with three fine prospects on display. Tulsa's Dominic Cervi leads the way, and at 6-foot-6 provides an imposing physical presence. He also displayed good agility going down low on shots. During his college career, Cervi was said to be prone to the occasional lapse in concentration, but all his most positive traits were on display here. "Great combine, commands his box well," was one coach's opinion. U.S. U-23 national team coach Peter Nowak liked what he saw so much that he added Cervi to his roster on the spot.

U.S. U-17 standout Josh Lambo and Wake Forest's Brian Edwards are the other two who caught the eye. Lambo drew praise from observers for his fundamentals and physical tools, while another coach compared him favorably to Brad Guzan and Chris Seitz at a similar stage. As for Edwards, he displayed nice positional sense and sure hands. "Definitely one of the better keepers, has good feet and good size," one coach said.

The other keepers at the combine, Ohio State's Casey Latchem and Stanford's Andrew Kartunen look like nothing more than backup material at best.

Defenders

This is definitely the strongest portion of the draft with several prospects already first-round locks and a few more rapidly ascending to that status. Of the big names, UCSB's Andy Iro looks ready to step in and start from the get-go. If his imposing physical stature (he's 6-foot-5) wasn't enough, Iro displayed sound instincts and good speed. "He's a very polished central defender, great in the air, a great organizer, and he's very smart tactically," one coach said. The only question mark surrounding Iro is his signability -- although he is leaning toward MLS, he's also on record as stating he will consider offers from Europe.

UConn's Julius James is the other sure thing. Projected by some as the potential No. 2 overall pick or possibly even No. 1, James had a slow start to the combine, appearing lethargic and disinterested. However, by the third day, James was exhibiting nice composure and defensive instincts. "Solid, just all-around solid," said one coach. I don't think his upside is as high as Iro's but James will be a very safe pick.

One player who elicits a high number of mixed reviews is Wake Forest's Julian Valentin. On the surface, Valentin doesn't seem to have any standout traits. He has decent size and speed but doesn't really seem to make any impact plays defensively. His supporters cite his "superior instincts and communication," while his detractors feel that his upside is limited. From what I see, Valentin's a solid but not special player who probably suffers from the expectation level that people typically place on someone with his press clippings. As for his college teammate Pat Phelan, the consensus is that he's a mature player who's ready for the pros. "Makes the game look easy," one coach said.

Although fairly well-regarded entering the draft, Ohio State's Eric Brunner might have leapfrogged some of his peers with his performance. He combines good size (6-foot-4) with unusual scoring ability (six goals in his senior year and another at the combine). "He's had a good combine, really knows his position although pacewise it's a question," said one coach.

The U.S. U-23 pair of Chance Myers (UCLA) and Sean Franklin (Cal-State Northridge) showed well brief appearances. Myers impressed observers with his attacking verve -- "likes to get forward, one of the few defenders here that overlaps well," said one coach. In contrast, Franklin displayed lockdown ability at right back, "pacy, good one versus one defender," one coach said.

Midfielders

On the whole, the midfield crop disappointed, with most of the players on display falling into the same mold -- solid but not spectacular -- and the absence of Duke's Michael Videira didn't help. The gem of the crop appears to be UCSB's Eric Avila, who has uncommon instincts, vision and creative ability. The knock on Avila is his lack of size and slight physique, leaving many to wonder if he can cut it physically in the pros. "He's a guy who's got a lot of potential. I think he has to grow into his body a little bit, good soccer brain, very technical player," said one coach. "But it remains to be seen whether he, in that position, can make an impact in MLS." From my standpoint, I don't think there's any question that Avila can cut it in MLS and presumably once he gets into an environment where his weight training is monitored and his nutritional intake improved, his physique will be less of an issue.

One player who has no such physical concerns is U.S. U-17 player Brek Shea, who is rapidly ascending the draft boards, with rumors circulating that he's been earmarked by several teams for a high first-round slot. It's easy to see why teams love Shea. He has all the physical tools, with size, speed and strength, and at age 17, his projected upside remains vast. "Very impressive, for his age he has great physical attributes. Reads the game very well, smart, good passer, great speed, he's been a pleasant surprise," one coach said.

However, I question Shea's technical ability in the sense that while it's good for a holding midfielder -- which is where I would play him -- I don't think he has the type of technical skill or flair that would make him an attacking force down the line. If a team's drafting him with the expectation of someday turning him into a threat on offense, I think it'll be in for a letdown.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Shea's U-17 teammate Alex Nimo, who at 5-foot-5 and lacking great speed, might lack the tools to become a starter in MLS. There's no questioning his technical skill, but at this point it's still not certain that he can develop into a solid pro. "I don't think he's had a great combine, but he's very young, he's a fairly technical player, I think he's a guy that has a shot, but I think it'll take another couple of years in the right environment before we see whether he can make it or not," one coach said.

Highly touted playmakers Peter Lowry (Santa Clara) and Roger Espinoza (Ohio State) both come with flaws. Lowry is smooth and composed on the ball, but seems to lack urgency at times and could stand to improve his tackling and work rate on the field. On the other hand, he's one of the few midfielders in this draft capable of scoring from range. "Good player, technically good, needs to be more explosive," one coach said, while another was less enthused, deeming Lowry "average in my opinion." As for Espinoza, he might still be riding the wave of his standout performance in the College Cup final, because he was anything but consistent at the combine, mixing poor performances with spurts of inspiration. "Good technical ability, pretty good engine, but has a lot of maturing to do," said one coach.

Forwards

If you're an MLS team in need of a striker, it's highly unlikely you'll find one in this shallow crop. Virginia Tech's Patrick Nyarko is touted as the potential No. 1 overall pick but he's laden with question marks and doesn't appear to be the surefire star you'd expect from someone with his billing. "I don't think we have seen the best of him at the combine, he has a lot of interesting attacking qualities," said one coach. "It remains to be seen whether he can, at the next level with the speed of play and better defenders, if he can use those qualities. He's got to learn to link up with players to be a successful player."

Gonzaga's George Josten raised his profile considerably by being the only forward to find the net with regularity at the combine. He's a classic big, strong player in the traditional target forward mode and his biggest virtue according to one coach is his ability to "keep it simple and effective."

Stock Rising

1. Shea Salinas, M, Furman -- My favorite player at this year's combine, Salinas combined speed on the ball with a willingness to run at defenders and create havoc on the wing. What's even more remarkable about his performance is that unknown to most people, Salinas played the entire time with a depressed cheekbone fracture. The injury, suffered about a week before the combine, meant that Salinas was able to eat solid food for the first time only a couple days before the combine began. Impressive intangibles aside, Salinas looks as though he has the skill set required to start in MLS. "Pacy, direct, good outside midfielder," said one coach.

2. Ricardo Pierre-Louis, F, Lee -- Pierre-Louis was the only forward at the combine who displayed the type of explosive burst that takes your breath away. He also displayed electric crossover moves and the ability to take his man off the dribble consistently. Add that to his NAIA college track record of 101 goals in 63 games and what's not to like? Well, his finishing skills remain suspect and a little erratic and his game still needs more refinement. However, there's no doubting that he's one of the few players in this pool who even has the potential to contribute offensively at the next level. "Unbelievable speed, looks like a raw center forward with lots of upside," was one coach's opinion.

3. Rauwshan McKenzie, D, Michigan State -- McKenzie's not as polished as Iro or James, but looks like pro material as well. A good athlete with size and speed, he hardly put a foot wrong and looked steady throughout the combine. "Very good athlete, he's got a little bit to learn, but a real raw talent," one coach said.

4. Jon Leathers, D, Furman -- The big question mark surrounding Leathers was his size (5-foot-8) and whether he could make the key conversion to outside back from his college position of central defense. Leathers proved he could make the switch with ease and also displayed attacking potential from the right back spot. "Can play anywhere across the back, comfortable in possession, could do very well at the next level," one coach said.

5. Yomby William, D, Old Dominion -- If you're looking for a carbon copy of Andy Iro then William is it. Checking in at 6-foot-4, William displayed many of the same physical tools as his more heralded counterpart minus the strength. "A pleasant surprise at the combine, very good in the air, good positional sense, good feet," one coach said. Although listed at age 26 in the combine media guide, William's actually only 23 (apparently he put his birthdate down wrong -- go figure).

Stock Falling

1. Xavier Balc, F, Ohio State -- The opinions on Balc basically run the gamut from love him to hate him. Unimpressive for most of the combine, Balc was arguably the most disappointing player. One coach cited his "soccer brain and good first touch," but for most, Balc was "just OK." From where I sit, Balc looks too slow and sluggish for the next level and doesn't possess the vision or creativity that's needed to compensate for that.

2. Andre Sherard, D, North Carolina -- The Tar Heels' defender had a dismal time at the combine and had difficulty matching up with most attackers he faced. He's probably undraftable off this performance. "Not great at all," said one coach.

3. Sherron Manswell, F, Boston College -- With a weak forward pool, Manswell had an opportunity to make a name for himself but failed to deliver. Although big and strong, Manswell showed poor athleticism and lacked the technical skill to scare defenders. "A bit stiff," one coach said.

4. Ryan Cordeiro, F, UConn -- Give credit to Cordeiro, he opened the combine at left back in an attempt to display his versatility. However, offensively he had trouble making an impact, lacking the technical ability to beat defenders and rarely asserting himself. "Don't have much of an opinion of him to be honest," said one coach.

5. Adrian Chevannes, D, SMU -- Chevannes had a horrible combine, looking vulnerable defensively throughout and tentative on the ball at other times. "He's been injured so it's been very difficult for him at times, we haven't seen the best of him," one coach said.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com.