It's that time of year - college soccer players are garnering the limelight in the NCAA tournament and catching looks from MLS coaches as they prepare to fill roster spots with the MLS SuperDraft in January.
Last season, guys like Chris Wingert (St. John's/Columbus Crew), Ned Grabavoy (Indiana/L.A. Galaxy), Matt Taylor (UCLA/Kansas City Wizards) and Scott Buete (Maryland/Chicago Fire) rose to the occasion.
As for this season's crop of college stars, well, Fire coach Dave Sarachan is making his list.
"As a staff, we have all been active in identifying college prospects for the Chicago Fire," said Sarachan. "Each one of us has personally scouted many games this fall season and will continue to do so throughout the College Cup in Los Angeles."
And he's checking (that list) twice.
"Recruiting prospects is not an exact science and requires watching a player more than once. Positionally, does that player understand what is required? Can a player handle the physical demands of professional soccer? Does he have a soccer brain - able to make clear soccer decisions? How quickly can he make those decisions under pressure?"
While the NCAA tournament is a big stage to see top college players, regular season match-ups can be key too. Columbus Crew assistant coach Robert Warzycha traveled to Lexington, K.Y., one night in September to catch the University of Kentucky vs. University of Michigan match-up. The Wolverines have enjoyed the services of Knox Cameron - a member of the U.S. U-20 team and likely a top pick in next month's SuperDraft.
MLS expansion means there are more roster spots to fill, and coach Sarachan told me, "Every team looks for different players, depending on their view of quality and positional needs. But as for the role of the college player, the ability to step into and adapt to 'the next level' of soccer is still the challenge."
College players moving to MLS spend the early part of their tenure adjusting to speed of play and life as a full-time pro.
"Some players adapt more quickly than others and the process requires patience from both sides," Sarachan said. "The ones who make it are those that can endure, compete and adapt to a game played faster than they have ever been required to play it."
I'll admit to being a big fan of college soccer - in particular, the programs that flourish at institutions where basketball and football rule. And I admire the programs that honor the dreams of players who are called to the next level of play - be it national team programs, foreign clubs or MLS teams.
Like it or not (Soccer America's Paul Gardner, are you listening?) college soccer is the main platform for preparing most of our young talent for the professional level. The existence of MLS demands that college programs offer as much as they can to help that talent flourish.
Chris Doran is the radio play-by-play and television sideline reporter for the Chicago FIRE and the IU Hoosier soccer program. He welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.