On a number of occasions during the MLS SuperDraft, I heard coaches say that the player scouting combine which took place before the draft was not a great way to evaluate players.
I especially heard that criticism applied to creative players such as Union draft pick Michael Farfan. When a player only has a short span of time in which to display his talents, it's a lot easier to be judged simply on scoring goals and making tackles.
In a conference call with reporters yesterday about the Union's supplemental draft picks, assistant coach John Hackworth spent a fair amount of time talking about how extensively the club's staff had scouted the players they selected.
Only one of those three players, Matt Marcin, was at the combine. It so happens that he is the most creative of the trio. Which means that the Union probably had to do a fair amount of research beforehand.
With that in mind, I put the question to Hackworth: Does the combine put creative players at a disadvantage?
His answer left little doubt.
I've probably been pretty vocal since before I was an MLS coach, that I didn't think the combine was a great evaluation tool. If you go down to the combine and you haven't done your homework already, you're not going to get a great idea of what these guys are truly like.
I think a guy like Matt Marcin is a perfect example of that, because he's a playmaker. In that environment, it's really hard - with guys you don't know, coaches you've never had before, stepping off a plane and playing less than 12 hours later - to really play your game and probably show as well as you could have.
Which is why it's so important to go and see these guys play for their teams in their natural environments, and as many times as you can look at them. To look at their whole body of work, that's what we try to do.
Hackworth said that the Union's staff watched each draft pick play games anywhere from two to six times each in person, plus game tapes and online streams. As a result, Hackworth said, it's not coincidental that all three players drafted had local ties.
I think there is a factor of when you do get to see these guys often, you build a better idea of what they're like. So for us, having the ability to see a lot of college games in this area, just in the Northeast region alone you can drive to major metropolitan areas and see a number of the top college teams play.
You take [the combine] into account, because you want to see what they're like. I'll give you a for instance. Michael Farfan, in a lot of people's eyes, was one of the best college players, without a doubt, all year long. And a lot of scouts said that. He was the top guy, the best player out there in college soccer.
He didn't have a good combine. He didn't do poorly, but he didn't show in the combine as one of the best. And his stock dropped a little bit. Which surprised all of us, but if you go back to a player's entire body of work, what they were like with their regular teams in their own environments, I think you need to put a lot more stock in that.
I bet that Hackworth's remarks sound a little familiar to the baseball fans among you. I certainly remember Pat Gillick saying similar things about how the Phillies scouted players during his tenure as general manager.
But as we all know, there are a lot of people in baseball who think that scouting with what you see with your own eyes is a bad way to do business. Those people have spent a lot of time in recent years trying to quantify every aspect of the game, and in a lot of ways they've succeeded. Phrases such as UZR, VORP and BABIP have become established in our sports lexicon in recent years.
I appreciate how much work front-office people put into analyzing all those numbers, and I certainly think they have good uses. But when I watch Chase Utley play for the Phillies, I don't need any fancy algorithms to tell you that he's a great baseball player.
At least baseball easily lends itself to statistics. Soccer, however, does not. Even before you get to all the formulas, how often have you ever heard of someone picking up a newspaper to read soccer box scores?
This is all a very roundabout way of complimenting Hackworth for his philosophy. But it also makes me wonder whether by staging the combine, Major League Soccer might inadvertently be harming its clubs' ability to properly assess college soccer players.
To be fair, I don't have a better alternative. There are hundreds of Division I programs and thousands of players out there, and MLS clubs' scouting budgets are limited. The combine gives coaches an easy way to evaluate players from across the country, and it's not easy to come up with an equally good alternative.
But it may be worth asking whether the combine's format, which is mainly comprised of a series of scrimmages, needs to be tweaked. Is there a way for the players involved to better show off their full range of skills?
I don't know, and I wonder what you think - especially the coaches among you.
The very concept of creating formal exercises for players to display their skills goes against the spirit of improvisation that makes soccer what it is. If you ask a player to deliver a one-touch pass that splits three defenders 10 times in a row, doesn't that defeat the purpose to some degree?
A similar argument can be made about having too many statistics in soccer. Sure, it's great to learn about the percentage of passes that Barcelona completed in a Champions League game. But if you throw too many numbers around at once, you start to take the fun out of the sport.
People like to say that soccer is a funny old game, and they don't always mean it nicely. But part of the sport is that it's easy to just sit back and enjoy it without having to think about all those numbers.
As the stat geeks might say, the old adage has an upside as well.