MLS Player Combine reflects changing landscape within domestic player development

New York City FC forward Patrick Mullins is one of a handful of promising players to emerge from last year's MLS Player Combine. 

Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA.

Scores of professional hopefuls leave their homes during January break and wind their way toward a cricket pitch in south Florida. The ritualistic importation provides them with one last chance to make their impressions before the MLS SuperDraft. Many of them will soon realize the difficulty of the task ahead.

MLS once relied exclusively on the college system to produce young players capable of contributing at the first-team level. It made sense for a league on tenuous financial footing to lean on others to bear the cost of developing players. It required minimal investment and reaped considerable benefits. The gambit proved successful enough with dozens of players climbing through the ranks and entrenching themselves as valued performers.

Those pathways still exist, but the emergence of academy programs over the past few years altered the calculus substantially. The process of identifying potential professionals shifted to teenagers willing to apply themselves in dedicated settings and learn their trade under the guidance of MLS academy coaches. The emergence of more traditional development models allowed teams to pluck promising prospects out of their academies and sign them to the first team before or during the college years. The resources expended and the structures implemented encouraged teams to lean on themselves to stock their own squads over the long haul.

By investing significantly in academy systems across the league and spiriting away top players before they graduated college, MLS squeezed the potential opportunities afforded to players later in their growth curve. Homegrown players occupied spaces once allotted to college standouts. The subsequent left an increasingly stripped pool of players trying to fight their way through the crowd to secure a contract with resources increasingly devoted toward cultivating academy players.

The altered reality is reflected in the shrinking Generation adidas classes. MLS once used the program to import a crop of talented prospects prior to the emergence of academy setups, but it is now wielded as a more precise tool to usher a handful of players into the professional ranks.

MLS limited the class to just seven players in each of the past two years and sliced the contingent to five this year. The smallest group in the history of the program includes the highly touted UConn forward Cyle Larin and Washington midfielder Cristian Roldan, but it also reflects the inability to entice other top prospects like Georgetown defender Joshua Yaro to leave schools for the contracts offered.

The tempered approach to spending on SuperDraft-eligible players and the uncertain labor landscape also affected the ability to tempt some of the primary senior targets. Saint Louis forward Robbie Kristo opted to sign in Serie B. UCLA midfielder Leo Stolz is expected to weigh a European move, too. The defections left MLS to unveil an eight-player senior signing class without a first-team NSCAA All-America in its ranks, though the class does possess potential contributors like Notre Dame midfielder Nick Besler and Oregon State forward Khiry Shelton.

Several of their colleagues hope to earn their way toward a similar status with their performances this weekend. MLS teams evaluate players during the college season and reach out to contacts to gather further information, but they also rely on the Player Combine to interview potential picks off the field and take one last glimpse at them before compiling their SuperDraft boards.

It is a more arduous process now with players peeled away from the list of choices at every turn. There are likely a couple of players primed to emerge during the Player Combine — five international players are included this year, while others might stand out from the pack with their fitness levels and their performances – and increase their stocks considerably. Several more will lean on their body of work to propel their cases for a chance at the next level.

Recent SuperDraft selections like Tesho Akindele and Steven Birnbaum underscore the enduring value of identifying accomplished college players capable of making the transition. The search isn’t quite as streamlined and there are more complicating factors now, but there is still value available in the right circumstances.

It is why teams still send their technical staffs en masse to south Florida and why players still make the journey in search of their first professional contracts. The landscape is different now. There are more options available to players and teams. But the possibility of establishing some fruitful partnerships drives all of them back here year after year to keep the ritual alive.