John Pascarella’s been through this before.
As Sporting Kansas City’s lead assistant when it comes to scouting the vast pool of the country’s college players, Pascarella has a strong handle on what goes into the draft process, where clubs all across the League navigate their way through hundreds of potential choices before settling on just a few when the showpiece event finally rolls around.
That process is now coming to an end as the MLS Player Combine wraps up in Ft. Lauderdale. The Combine concludes on Tuesday, capping a series of three matches between the top players at the college level along with select internationals. From there, the travelling band of technical staffs, media and a few draft hopefuls make their way to Kansas City for Thursday’s MLS Superdraft (11am CT, ESPN2).
"The term 'meat market' is a probably a fair assessment," Pascarella said, referring to what the Combine provides each year for MLS coaches and technical directors.
Judging one collegiate athlete against another on DVD can be a difficult, and quite simply inefficient task. Accounting for the standard of play (something that can vary greatly across all of the NCAA’s divisions and conferences) alone can be enough to raise serious doubts when comparing players.
The Combine -- to a point -- can eliminate some questions that pop up vis-à-vis Player X vs. Player Y.
The reality, however, is that while the Combine provides a glimpse into the future as to what type of asset a player could become at the MLS level, the sample size is simply too small to make drastic judgments. Still, the struggle persists. Does a staff trust the work they've done in preparation, even if what is has transpired before their eyes provides a stark contrast?
"Here’s the thing. The Combine really is only the last little piece of the puzzle, because we've watched these kids, hopefully, four-five-six times live over the last couple of years and been seeing them on video as well, so the Combine shouldn't really make or break anything."
-- John Pascarella, Sporting KC Assistant
In an environment that provides players with a platform to separate themselves from their peers, there are situations where even the most experienced talent evaluators can get carried away by what they see right before their eyes. In speaking with Pascarella, one particular instance jumps out almost immediately.
"I'll give you an example: Tim Ream, he's had an up-and-down time in MLS, but he's done better than most people," Pascarella said. "He was very high on our draft board going into the Combine, had an absolute stinker, and dropped on our list. It kind of taught us a lesson a couple seasons ago not to rely just on those three-to-four days there."
That lesson has not been forgotten by Pascarella and the rest of the staff as they finish taking in the Combine matches and begin to make their final preparations for Thursday. Plenty of valid reasons have cropped up explaining why certain players have struggled.
"Listen, maybe the guy had a cold. Maybe his uncle just passed away the week before. You don't really know, so we try not to put too, too much stock in it," Pascarella said. "It just kind of confirms if we really like a player or if we'd rather pass on them."
Despite a general wariness of making any kneejerk reactions, however, the Combine provides the best environment for a staff to verify as a group what one assistant has thought all along. This was he case in 2011, when Pascarella had a good feeling about a certain forward from a small school in Virginia.
"I had seen C.J. Sapong play a number of times -- both live and on video -- but none of the other coaches had ever seen him," Pascarella recalls. "When you watch C.J. play, and he turns a guy and turns on that burst of speed, you kind of go 'wow' the first time you see him, and that happened with him with the other coaches because they just hadn't seen him yet."
As it turned out, Sapong did more than enough to justify his selection with the number ten overall pick in last year's draft, excelling in his first season as a professional and winning the League's Rookie of the Year award. While many characterized the pick as a product of Sapong’s strong Combine performance at the time of his selection, the truth is that Pascarella had begun keeping tabs on the forward long before.
As far as the college scouting process goes, Sporting KC operates on somewhat of a rolling schedule, preparing for the upcoming season well before summer vacation has ended for many of the players they plan to observe in the fall. Files are kept and maintained on underclassmen that might not be draft-eligible that year, and plans are arranged to see as many players as possible in a live match setting.
"It starts in late-July, early-August where we start to put together a list of games we want to see," Pascarella said. "When we go on the road in those months, sometimes we'll all travel to a game. So if we're going on Friday to play New England on Saturday, and Boston College is playing, we'll go watch."
While seeing matches live and on video gives the coaches valuable insights into the abilities of each draft class, the Combine allows them to meet face-to-face with the players in a live interview setting. In regards to the conversations that occur in the interview room, Pascarella says fans might be surprised by the content. After all, a player's physical qualities are of little use if his head isn't in the right place.
“A lot of the talk is about stuff outside the game," he said. "You have to get a good beat on the guy. What has he been studying and why? Is he moving to town by himself, with a fiancé? Does he already have a kid? I think its a little bit more personal, not so much about the soccer."
According to Pascarella, however, deciding which players have futures in MLS is sometimes the most straightforward part of the draft process. In fact, the most critical interactions might be the conversations that occur amongst each of the 19 technical staffs.
"Some of it is picking other guy's brains about what they think about a player,” Pascarella said. “Some of it is a little more coy where you're trying to get a feel for what those other teams ahead of you are going to do in terms of their picks."
In years past, Sporting have been afforded enviable draft positions due to subpar finishes in the season prior. But after a trip to the Eastern Conference final in 2011, that's not the case this time, making the task of gathering accurate info about other team’s intentions that much more vital.
"This year it's even more important for us to get a good gauge of what's going to happen because we don't pick until 16, and then our next pick is 30,” Pascarella said. "The conversations will be even more interesting, to see if we can really get a grip on the two or three guys that are gonna fall to us.”
Whoever does end up being Sporting KC's first round pick in 2012, Pascarella insists there will be no pressure—from the technical staff, at least—to duplicate the campaign put together by Sapong in 2011.
"C.J. for us is a one-off, you don't really expect to be able to do that every single year, unless you've got one of the top three or four picks." Pascarella said.
And the type of player that Sporting may be hoping to select? It’s a simple answer says Pascarella.
"You want a guy that fits, and you feel like you can develop over a couple of years that's gonna turn into a Zusi or a Myers or a Besler. That's the more common case and really what you're looking for."
Considering the quantum leap that those three mentioned by Pascarella made in 2011, there's ample reason to be excited about Thursday's additions to Sporting's roster.