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MLS Combine: Bates shines in his chance at forward

LAUDERHILL, Fla. – Will Bates knows there’s a pecking order. He knows there are expectations for the top picks, he knows the Combine is a meat market, and he knows that sometimes, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

For the first two days of the event, that meant he had to play out wide. And in his own words, “it didn’t go so well.”

Bates is built like a tank, standing six feet tall and weighing in at 185 pounds. Think Conor Casey with freckles. So yes, it was odd seeing him out there on the wing.

“Obviously you have the big names – [Eriq] Zavaleta, Kekuta [Manneh], [Ryan] Finley and those guys who’ve all signed deals,” Bates said after Tuesday’s 2-2 draw between his Prime squad and adiZero. “So they kind of got preference, I guess you could say, at the beginning.”

The surfeit of strikers meant Bates and a few others who’ve primarily made their living up top in college – notably Boston College’s Charlie Rugg and Xavier’s Luke Spencer – have spent very little time in the center channel. For Bates, that changed on Day 3, and he rewarded his team with a sterling half of play that saw him first draw a penalty, then pick up an assist by fighting off a defender and sending Blake Smith through on goal.

It was a classic center forward play, the type that teams look for out of their No. 9s.

“I think I have the physicality and the build to play that position in MLS, in the league,” Bates offered. “If coaches see me as a forward – and I think they do – that’s the position I’m happy to play.”

He’s also happy to play the spot at full fitness. It’s been just over 14 months since he tore his right ACL, and while it didn’t stop him from playing his senior year at Virginia, it did leave scouts with some questions about whether he’d be able to come back and play like he did before the injury.

“I mean I played the whole season with no issues with it – you get a little swelling and soreness afterwards, but nothing that keeps me out of training or keeps me out of games,” he explained. “I’ve got my speed back, I’ve got my cuts, so I don’t have any complaints with it.”

If teams feel the same way after putting him through a battery of physicals, then he’ll end up hearing his name called on Thursday. And if that means a career taking a beating from central defenders while holding the ball up, Bates is happy to oblige.

“It’s what I want to do. I just hope I’m taken by a team that really believes in me and gives me that opportunity.”