PHILADELPHIA — Tryouts for Sueño MLS 2011 – presented by Allstate hit Philadelphia this past weekend, as more than 400 aspiring soccer players competed for the last remaining spots in the finals, which will be held in Dallas, May 7-8.
As in the two previous preliminary tryouts, in Dallas and Chicago, the weekend in Philadelphia brought out a wide array of contestants, ranging from 14-18 years old. Some came from places as far away as California to try to make their pro dreams come true.
Things got underway just before 9 a.m. Saturday morning inside YSC Sports Complex, where the trialists played in 8-v-8 games made up of two twenty-minute halves. The scrimmages went by in a flash for the participants, but the assessors were able to recognize the most talented players seeminlgy before anyone had even broken a sweat.
“It only takes about five minutes to see if someone has real potential,” Brendan Burke, head coach of Philadelphia Union’s reserve team and the lead scout at Sueño MLS Philadelphia, said. “With just two touches on the ball, you know.”
WATCH: Sueño MLS 2011 – presented by Allstate in Philadelphia
But great ball skills alone weren’t enough to make it past the first day of tryouts on Saturday and earn an invitation back on Sunday. The coaches were looking at more than just natural talent or flashy playmaking. In the end, the 21 field players who were invited to Sunday’s session were those that gave the best overall performances.
“We paid attention to a lot of things, such as technical ability, athleticism, physical endurance," Burke said. "But there are also plenty of intangibles, like how someone reacted after being tackled: Did they stay on the ground or did they get right back up? It’s as much mental as it is physical.”
When it came to the goalkeepers, however, Burke and his fellow assessors were more than happy to leave the decision up to a special guest. Faryd Mondragon, the Philadelphia Union number-one goalkeeper, was on hand during both days of tryouts to run special drills with the young keepers looking to be named El Portero Allstate. The Colombian international personally chose the six goalies invited back for the second day, and he would eventually make the decision as to which goalkeeper would advance to the finals in Dallas.
On Sunday, the training became more rigorous, as the coaches looked to judge the talent under more pro-like conditions. Players were now required to follow exact orders under the watchful eye of the assessors, and they were asked to do more technical work.
“We ran drills on passing, shooting, first touch and killing the ball to see how they’d perform under more structured workouts,” Rob Smith, Philadelphia Union’s vice president of soccer development and community relations, said.
The more structured and formal training clearly got the best of some of young hopefuls, but it provided the best platform for the Union staff to make better judgments about the players' talents and potential.
“There were some players who stood out yesterday [Saturday] because they were drawn in easy groups," Smith said. "This time around, the talent’s more equal across the board, which creates a more competitive environment."
But even a brilliant practice session can’t compare with how a player performs in real-game situations, which is why Sunday’s full-side scrimmages were viewed by the assessors and the players the ultimate test.
“A full-sided match changes the shape of the game and makes everything easier for us to see," Burke said. "The games allowed us not only to better observe the players’ strengths and weaknesses, but they also helped us observe their tactical IQ better. These games give us the last bit of info we need to make our decision.”
Painfully aware that it was now or never, some of the kids let their nerves get the best of them, but the coaches helped in an attempt to get the most out of each of the players.
“I definitely didn’t play to my potential today,” midfielder Milton Rico, 18, admitted. "A coach even took me aside and told me that I was playing like I had too much to prove. After that, I calmed down a little and was able to relax.”
Whether or not Rico improved enough over the course of the day to earn a spot among the finalists is unknown still.
“I’d say about three guys are pretty much done deals," Burke said at the end of the Sunday session. "The remaining spots are still up for grabs.”
And while Burke isn’t sure if he’s found the next Jorge Flores or Rogelio Funes Mori – previous Sueño MLS winners who are now enjoying successful pro soccer careers – he sees potential is some of the players he watched over the weekend.
“There are a few guys that we think can be molded into good, solid players," he said.
Find out the finalists from Philadelphia on Univision's "Republica Deportiva," on Sunday, May 1, 11 am ET.