CARSON, Calif. – The MLS Player Combine has in the past had something approaching a permanent home in Fort Lauderdale. It's a charming location just off the beaten path, and that under-the-radar feel permeated proceedings (which always included lots of agents and lots of coaches and lots of GMs staying up late in the hotel lobbies and making deals).
Those deals will still get done, and given that it's January and the NFL playoffs are happening, and both the NBA and NHL are in full swing, and the college football championship is Monday night, it's safe to say that the Combine is still very much under the radar.
But being in LA at the StubHub Center, it certainly feels different. Perhaps a little bit more buttoned-up.
Part of that might also be the quality of the field. The Combine has, in years past, been played on a cricket pitch charitably described as "bumpy." Today's games were on pristine grass that's had more than two months to recover since the end of the MLS season, and because of that the games were more cohesive and there was more flow throughout.
With that as prologue, here are the big winners and losers from Day 1:
Stock Up: Daniel Johnson
The Louisville midfielder was on the first-round bubble heading into this event and now it's conceivable he'll go in the top 10. He was simply phenomenal in the first half (the only half he played) of Team Control's 3-1 win over Team Chaos. He drew a penalty that led to the first tally of the day, then assisted on the next two, and was generally the best player on the field the entire time.
Johnson is right-footed, and played as an inverted winger on the left side, so he often cut in to get on the ball and create danger. You can see where he picked up his two assists from – those aren't the parts on the field you usually associate with "left winger."
So he drifts, which you'd expect at least a little bit. What really impressed, though, was that he wasn't always drifting. Johnson actually spent more time in his lane, and was constantly making runs away from the ball instead of coming to it. The old axiom I try to analyze by is "watch how good a player is on the ball, and that's how good he is on the day. Watch how good he is off the ball, and that's how good he is."
Johnson was devastating on the ball while being polished, composed and thoughtful off of it.
Louisville's Daniel Johnson with an impressive half at the MLS Player Combine. Sharp touches + clever runs.— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) January 8, 2017
Also of note: He did really well in the physical testing on Saturday, measuring out with elite quickness and very good straight-line speed. Both of those things matter.
Stock Up: Team Control's internationals
Delaware center forward Guillermo Delgado, a Spaniard who was Pippo Inzaghi-esque in how he straddled the offside line; winger Zeiko Lewis of Boston College, an inverted winger who played on the right side and was constantly threatening; and German midfielder Julian Gressel of Providence, who helped wrest control of the game from Team Chaos at the start and was one of the main reasons Team Control never gave it back.
Delgado is one of the fastest players at the combine, and his energy and commitment meant that speed was a weapon for every second he was on the pitch. Any team that needs a fox-in-the-box off the bench will certainly have a look.
Lewis wasn't as dominant as Johnson, but he converted a PK and he was smart and dangerous with his movement. He also absolutely killed the speed and agility tests.
Gressel, meanwhile, showed the ability to get into the box as a late runner, a willingness to track and make difference-making defensive plays through the middle, and even the ability to thread balls through for his frontline.
It's tough for MLS teams to justify using an international slot on a draft pick, but these guys all markedly increased their chances.
Stock Up: Adonijah Reid
Reid was the man of mystery coming into this event, a 17-year-old Canadian GA who most teams hadn't scouted. Everybody knew he was tiny and that he'd scored a bunch of goals in League1 Ontario, but not much beyond that.
They now know he has a refined first touch, vision, cleverness with the ball around the box and the agility to turn a defender. He only played 45 minutes in Team Copa's 4-0 loss to Team Tango, splitting his time between center forward and attacking midfielder. Reid was definitely better in the second spot, and his comfort getting on the ball and facing up was evident for the game's final 20 minutes – as he showed on the slip pass that led to a drawn penalty for his side.
Reid wasn't as willing to stretch the field as guys like Johnson or Lewis, but that's not an uncommon hole in a young player's game. Whoever drafts him will likely stash him in USL for a year with a mandate to improve away from the ball, and if he manages that he'll be an MLS contributor in 2018.
Stock Down: Brandon Aubrey
The Notre Dame man was the highest rated senior center back coming into the Combine, but he had an absolute nightmare. His passing was sloppy; he was unable to contain Delgado on the ball the one time they got isolated, and totally lost him off the ball on Delgado's goal; and he was repeatedly beaten in the air on set pieces.
People still know that Aubrey can play, and he'll still probably be a top 10 pick. But if you're looking for someone who could use a better showing on Tuesday, here's your man.
Stock Down: Niko Hansen
The winger from New Mexico wasn't bad – he had an assist on the day, and generally did well to get into good spots. But he wasn't as dangerous on or off the ball as Johnson, Lewis, Reid or Jonathan Lewis (a US U-20 and GA kid who played in the second half for Team Tango).
I still like what I've seen from Hansen, and four years of good play in a good league should not and will not be thrown out by one lukewarm Combine performance. But this draft is heavy with wingers, and nobody loves the idea of being the fifth-best choice at their given spot.