Bobby Warshaw was a 22-year-old college standout from Stanford when he was invited to the 2011 adidas MLS Player Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Five years later, he shares his story of that experience, which ultimately earned him the No. 17 overall selection by FC Dallas in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
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On Friday, 71 kids – they might be college seniors, mostly, but they’re still kids – will gather in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for what amounts to a five-day job interview.
Of course, the 2016 adidas MLS Player Combine is much more than that. It's the final step before a little boy realizes a dream – or sees it go unfulfilled. And yet, I don’t remember anything momentous about my own combine experience five years ago.
It stands out not for its stomach-churning stakes and circumstance, a professional career in the balance, but rather as the last time I remained indifferent to such a moment.
Really, it’s an honor just to be invited, to audition for the next step while hundreds of your peers, some just as or more talented, sit at home. An MLS contract, the culmination of years of hard work, feels within reach.
Hell, just playing in front of the hundred or so coaches and media members who stalk the sidelines is exciting. Hey, that’s Bruce Arena! Bruce Arena is watching me play! It feels, in a way, like you've already made it.
Little do you know, those people don’t care about you, your reputation, your dreams. They might not even know your name. You’re a number, a commodity. You're the soccer equivalent of corn, coffee or cattle.
Fittingly, the week starts, quite literally, in cattle herding fashion. The herd of invitees is separated into teams, then you take 10 minutes to learn everyone’s names before your coach, a random guy also learning everyone’s name, gives a quick primer on what’s to come.
Once that’s out of the way, you file down the hall from the hotel lobby to a conference room, where you’re probed by half a dozen team doctors and physios in assembly-line fashion, a system that ultimately spits out a number grading your fitness and, more relevantly, your health risk.
Only then do you get around to actually playing soccer, during which the tactics amount to choosing a formation while the coach urges everyone to “go show what you can do.” Whether you’ll actually be put in a position to show what got you to the brink of a professional career is another story entirely.
I showed up to the combine after being told I was a central midfielder in the eyes of MLS coaches and scouts. But when I arrived, my team included a solitary center back. “Is defense alright with you, Bobby?” my coach asked, already knowing the answer.
“Should I interview out of position,” I thought, “or declare to the interviewer I care more about myself than the group?” I probably should have been more concerned, but I was just happy to be there. I did what was asked.
It’s an individual event, but it’s still a team sport, so sacrifice of some sort is part of the bargain. My team had one sure-thing high pick [Kofi Sarkodie, No. 7 pick by Houston Dynamo in 2011 MLS SuperDraft], and the hierarchy wasn’t a mystery. “Listen, we all know [this guy] will show well,” our coach told us, “but the rest of you should work together to help yourselves out.” It was callous, but what else was he supposed to say?
From the outside, you’d expect the weekend to be a scenario straight out of the Hunger Games. For the most part, though, the mood is light. Rather than a ruthless battle for first-round standing, it's basically a bunch of dudes hanging out and playing soccer, another weekend of what we'd all done our whole lives.
With so much on the line, you'd think the level would be higher. But it tends to go the other way.
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Everyone bashes on the quality of games at the Combine. They are totally right. The games are a mess. Everyone is simultaneously excited and nervous, a terrible combination for players that don’t have any continuity with each other.
The timing plays a part, too. Most players should be resting their bodies, enjoying the holidays with their families after a demanding college season, but the Combine comes at an awkward time. I did my sprint workouts over the holiday break in my backyard with snow falling on my head and my dad tossing balls for first-touch drills in the garage.
Does that sound like the best way to prepare for three games in five days, what could amount to make-or-break moments? The truth is nobody cares, certainly not the journalists, who pump out grades and mock drafts after each round of games.
Every night after dinner, just about everyone heads back to their room to read the reviews of that day’s games. No one ever outwardly discusses the grades – if you got a good grade and mention it, you’re arrogant; if you get a bad grade and complain, you’re weak-minded – but most can’t resist checking to see whether their stock is reportedly rising or falling.
I had a great first game in 2011, consistently finding myself in the right spots to intercept passes and block shots. This very site wrote an article highlighting my stellar play, suggesting it could move my stock into the first round. Walking to dinner that night, I remember feeling a little outwardly embarrassed by the praise. Inside, though, I felt like a boss.
Still, despite what’s at stake, the games don’t feel gladiatorial. Yes, your performance can determine where you get drafted, how much money you make or whether you’ll have a career at all, but it takes a while for that to sink in. You don’t know until you know, you know?
The combine isn’t life and death – just a small piece of a larger body of work – but it could be the difference between employed and unemployed. You’ve officially left the nice, cozy confines of college for the real world. The bumpers are off.
As a professional, there are no favorites, no excuses. The combine is your first taste of that, whether you realize it or not.