LAUDERHILL, Fla. – The top 11 questions as the 2014 MLS adidas Player Combine kicks off here in South Florida...
11) Who's done their homework?
The Combine is an important metric for clubs finalizing their SuperDraft plans. That said, those who try to substitute five days in Florida for months, sometimes even years, of careful scouting and networking at the college level are asking for trouble. Has your team put in the work?
10) How will the Caribbean selections fare?
There's a new twist this year as two of the most promising performers in last week's inaugural Caribbean Combine, Quinton Christina and Stefano Rijssel, have earned a chance to impress in the main event. Rijssel has logged minutes in CONCACAF Champions League for Trinidad & Tobago's W Connection, while the 18-year-old Christina is more of an unknown quantity.
9) Will the blue-chippers seize the spotlight?
Surprises always crop up in the SuperDraft, but this year there are several clearly desirable prospects seen as surefire top 10 picks, the likes of Steve Birnbaum, Christian Dean, Andre Blake and Patrick Mullins (at right). But first, the Combine, where some onus is on them to show why they're worth the hype.
8) Where are the scorers?
Some observers believe this year's crop is a bit light on pure strikers. Add in the fact that it can be tough to truly evaluate frontrunners in the unfamilar setting of the Combine, where team chemistry is rudimentary and service into the box can be spotty, and it's safe to say that anyone who displays some clinical finishing will turn heads over the next few days.
7) Are Chivas USA, FC Dallas and the Rapids prepared?
For technical staffs, the offseason is now effectively over. And three clubs with lingering offseason upheaval at the head coaching spot – though the Goats did get new boss Wilmer Cabrera installed just in time for the Combine – must manage the transition and make the right choices at the draft despite the less-than-ideal circumstances.
6) Who is this year's Dillon Powers?
The reigning Rookie of the Year was an established college star at Notre Dame, but his stock dropped when he was seen as a step slow at the 2013 Combine, even after he produced a goal and an assist on the first day. The Rapids kept faith in the midfielder, though, and were richly rewarded when the real games played out.
5) What lies in store for talented “tweeners” like Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann?
The transition from NCAA to the professional level tends to be particularly tricky for attacking players, and this cycle features several college maestros who don't have a clearly defined role waiting for them in MLS (Clemson schemer Thomas McNamara might fall under this category, too). There's uncertainty there, but also great potential rewards for any coaches who have a vision for their substantial gifts. And solid shifts at the Combine can nudge this process along.
4) Will draft-day trades might take shape in Ft. Lauderdale hotel bars this weekend?
The behind-the-scenes chatter really gets roaring in the hours leading up to draft day in Philadelphia on Thursday, yet there's also plenty of quiet networking happening in South Florida over the next few days as the MLS coaching fraternity convenes.
3) What does the persistent – and arguably, growing – foreign influence mean for the Combine and SuperDraft process?
The rise of MLS academies has been widely predicted as the death knell for the existing draft system. However, even as Homegrown signings – and there have already been a raft of them this winter – thin out the domestic talent, a burgeoning supply of overseas prospects are filling the gap. And that's not just because of the handful of young foreign pros invited in by the league: The college game offers more opportunities than ever for youngsters from around the world.
2) Birnbaum or Dean?
Those three words succinctly boil down the decision-making process for more than one club with a top-five draft slot. The California center-back partners are rated as the top defenders on offer this year and might just wind up going one-two ... or maybe two-three ... but their differing skill sets, levels of pro-ready polish and salary-cap hits make this a knotty dilemma.
1) Who is the 2014 Cinderella?
Last year fresh faces like Kekuta Manneh and Devon Sandoval climbed into prominence at this stage, and subsequently proved that useful perfomers can be dug up in a diverse range of places. And that's one of the enduring delights of this ritual: You just never know.