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Eastern Conference Championship

Now's the time to shine

Their futures could hinge on four days in Los Angeles, and here's what some of the nation's best young soccer talent faces in those four days at Major League Soccer's 2005 adidas Player Combine:

Three games, on successive days, playing unfamiliar positions alongside teammates they've never laid eyes on, let alone played with. Oh, and -- if forecasts be trusted -- it's going to be raining buckets.

In all, 74 players will showcase their games to MLS coaching staffs over the next few days, providing a final glimpse before next week's MLS SuperDraft at the NSCAA Convention in Baltimore. A strong performance at the Combine -- Saturday through Tuesday at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. -- could make you a first-round pick. A poor showing, your stock might plummet.

"I think everyone recognizes it's tough for the players in a situation like a combine," says MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley, who might not make a SuperDraft selection. "You have to respect what they're going through, but you still try to look to see if there's any information you can use to your advantage."

The teams already have a decent idea of what, and who, they want -- they've been scouting college and youth players for months. The combine permits staffs, Bradley says, to "confirm some of the things you've seen, and look hard to see if there's anything you have missed."

"I think it's a great opportunity to see these guys under match conditions before you make a decision on who you want to draft," says Los Angeles Galaxy head coach Steve Sampson, an MLS SuperDraft rookie, who possesses three first-round selections. "What we're looking for is, obviously, how they handle playing with quality players around them. You try to get a feel for what their character and personality is, and you combine that with conversations with all their previous coaches."

On display will be a number of players from the U.S. U-17 residency in Bradenton, Fla., long a provider of top MLS talent. Midfielders Nicolas Besagno and Quavas Kirk are among 12 non-college seniors available in the draft. These players, formerly called Project 40 players -- typically very talented teens or college underclassmen -- are particularly coveted.

"The developmental players, the Project 40 players, are becoming invaluable," Sampson says, "because they don't count against your roster nor against your salary cap."

Several top college players -- including Tulsa forward Ryan Pore, South Carolina goalkeeper Brad Guzan, Indiana defender Drew Moor, Wake Forest defender Michael Parkhurst, UCLA forward Chad Barrett, North Carolina forward Jamie Watson -- also are available as developmental players.

Barrett, Virginia defender Hunter Freeman, Saint Louis defender Tim Ward and Saint Louis forward Will John -- among the developmental signings -- will miss the Combine, but coaches nonetheless can watch them at Home Depot Center. They're with the U.S. under-20 team, which begins CONCACAF qualifying for the 2005 World Youth Championship on Wednesday.

Danny O'Rourke, the pivotal player in Indiana's run to a second successive NCAA Division I title and candidate for the Hermann Trophy -- college soccer's answer to the Heisman -- is among 66 college seniors at the Combine. MLS staffs also will see Maryland forward Abe Thompson, Notre Dame goalkeeper Chris Sawyer, Washington defender C.J. Klaas, UCLA midfielder Mike Enfield and Michigan forward Knox Cameron, all with U.S. youth national team experience.

Fourteen international players, all college seniors, will play at the Combine. UC Santa Barbara defender Tony Lochhead is a starter for New Zealand's national team. Virginia Commonwealth defender Gonzalo Segares, a Hermann finalist, is a rising Costa Rican talent. Wake Forest forward Scott Sealy plays for Trinidad & Tobago's national
team. Old Dominion midfielder Kevon Harris (Jamaica), Akron defender Cameron Knowles (New Zealand), Hartford forward Alon Lubezky (Israel) and Boston College defender Guy Melamed (Israel) have played for their countries' youth national teams.

Three lower-division players -- forwards Orlando Ramirez of Fresno Pacific (NAIA) and Usiel Vasquez of Southern Connecticut State (NCAA Division II), and defender Danny Sullivan of Bowdoin (NCAA Division III) -- also will play.

"When we started looking at the college players, back in September and October, the first thing that people I respect told me is this class is not as strong as last year's class," Sampson says. "As time went on, I think everyone's opinion on that changed. ... I think there are some very fine players coming out for the Combine. I think we have a very good class."

Games will be played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the Home Depot Center, and the excessive rain has already played havoc with the schedule, the first day's games moved back a few hours. The players, who arrive in southern California for physicals and meetings Saturday, will be split among four teams, with Notre Dame's Bobby Clark, Santa Clara's Cam Rast, UCLA's Jorge Salcedo and Wake Forest's Jay Vidovich serving as coaches.

Salcedo played for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Tampa Bay Mutiny and Columbus Crew in a five-year MLS career.

Maryland contributed four players -- Thompson, goalkeeper Noah Palmer, and midfielders Domenic Mediate and Ian Rodway -- to the Combine, most of any school.

There are three players from Notre Dame (Sawyer and defenders Kevin Goldthwaite and Jack Stewart), Southern Methodist (goalkeeper T.J. Tomasso, defender Ugo Ihemelu and forward Ryan Latham), Wake Forest (Sealy, defender James Riley and midfielder Amir Lowery) and St. John's (goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, defender Ryan Kelly and midfielder Simone Salinno). Gaudette was added when teammate Chris Corcoran, a defender, backed out with an injury.

Scott French is a veteran soccer journalist currently with the Los Angeles Daily News. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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