MLS Combine Player Profile Crash-Course / by A.J. Barnold

Eds note: Predicting the results of the MLS SuperDraft is a fool's errand. If you need evidence for that claim (and with all due respect to Mel Kiper), see the 10 completely different mock drafts that have been released over the past few days. Instead of trying to predict the unpredictable, we just want to arm our readers with as much information as possible so that they can back up what they're seeing at the combine and know what they're getting from the players called to the podium on draft day. A.J. and Aaron both identify talent professionally using conventional scouting means, but they also have a deep appreciation for the contributions that analytics and stats can provide to give context and meaning to what their eyes tell them. We hope you'll use this guide when watching the combine next week and when these players are taken in the draft.

By A.J. Barnold (@ajbarnold) and Aaron Nielsen (@ENBSports)

This Saturday, the 2017 MLS Player Combine kicks off in Carson, CA, and leads into next Friday’s SuperDraft. To date, 66 players have been invited to showcase themselves to the league’s coaches, scouts, and front offices. This begins with physical testing on Saturday, followed by matches on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Matches will be live streamed on the MLS site.

Most of the combine invitees recently finished their NCAA careers, and are not tied to clubs via the Homegrown Player rule. If you’re an avid follower of the college game, many of these players will be familiar to you, and you may already have an idea of how they’ll fit into the league. If you’re less familiar with these prospects, it may be a bit more difficult to draw conclusions from three days of matches featuring players thrust into a situation where they don’t know their teammates and there’s no real tactical system. Frankly, that’s a really difficult task for the clubs and those of us who DO know the college game!

In either case, the more information and insight we can gather on players, the better chance we’ll have of identifying the talents that will be on MLS rosters in a few weeks’ time. The combine frequently allows lesser-known players to improve their draft stock, and the bigger stars to grow their list of potential suitors. To that end, we present profiles and data on the majority of combine  invitees based on who we’ve seen in our work as it relates to NCAA soccer.

Contents:
-    Brief profiles on ACC players plus any additional combine players who I (A.J. Barnold) have seen play live in the past two seasons
-    ACC leaders for several of the statistical categories listed in the profiles, for context and comparison
-    Additional combine profiles prepared by Aaron Nielsen of Prospect XI – mostly on players I have not covered; any overlapping players have Aaron’s notes under mine

Player statistics are used for ACC players only.  They refer to the dataset of all games played by ACC teams in the 2016 season as recorded by InStat.  This includes 180 games, missing four games that were not coded by InStat due to poor video quality.  

Players are categorized by the position in which they played most frequently during the 2016 season (center back, outside back, center mid, outside mid, forward).  Players who did not appear in at least 25% of their team’s matches are excluded from the rankings (leaving 214 total field players).  GK data is not available.

Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

Brandon Aubrey – Notre Dame – CB
Very dangerous on set pieces – difficult to match in the air, strikes a very good free kick with pace/movement, solid penalty taker.  Good on the ball, can pick out passes if given time.  Looks to break lines with passes into the forward but sometimes quick to resort to a long ball.  Moves plenty well for his size but may struggle with pacey forwards.  Based on recent success of CBs in his mold, has the potential be a solid MLS CB.
Stats:

  • 74.7% aerial challenge success - #5 overall in ACC, #3 CB, more challenges won per 90 than anyone above him
  • #1 CB in goals per 90 – drops to #2 for non-penalty goals and non-penalty goals + assists per 90 (scored 3 goals from penalties)
  • 60.5% tackle success – 26th out of 32 CBs in ACC
  • Possibly due to only attempted 1.7 tackles per 90 – 28th out of 32 CBs

Jalen Brown – Xavier – LM
Non-ACC
Seemed to create the most chances of their front 4 (in a 4-2-3-1).  Strong in the challenge, good on the ball, strikes it well, reasonably athletic – can be a handful.

Russell Cicerone – Buffalo – F
Non-ACC
Pacey, loves to dribble at defenders and shoot or slip runners.  Physically strong.  Strikes it well.

Stefan Cleveland – Louisville – GK
Decent shot stopper, though we never truly tested him in 2 games.  Good distance on his kicks, helped move the ball into opponent’s end where Louisville preferred to play (direct/pressing style).

Suli Dainkeh – Maryland – LB/CB
Non-ACC
Played LB in 2015.  As an OB was asked to get forward and provide service in Maryland’s system.  Pretty similar player to Odoi-Atsem as an OB, but did not fly forward quite as frequently or aggressively.

Michael DeGraffenreidt – Louisville – CB
Similar to Nana-Sinkam – solid college CB but not sure how it will translate to the next level – outside back?  May be considered undersized but makes up for it with athleticism.  Louisville played fairly direct this year so he was not tasked with passing out of the back too much.
Stats:

  • 5.4 interceptions per 90 - #31 of 32 CBs
    • Likely due to Louisville’s pressing style – CB partner Kunkel is #32
  • 64.1% aerial challenge success – #22 of 32 CBs
  • #28 CB in passes completed per 90 (27.5) but #16 passing % (82.8%)

Matej Dekovic – Charlotte – LB
Non-ACC
Looked to get forward frequently, although he played RB against us even though he is left-footed.  Dangerous set piece service.

Jeremy Ebobisse – Duke – F
Did not play college in 2016 – ACC opponents surely did not miss him.  Athletic, good in the air – several headed goals.  Strong left foot, good finisher and has that capability to pull things off that others can’t.  Decent coming back for the ball – frequently received passes from the backs either on the ball side or as the weak side forward pulling off the back line.
Aaron’s take: Athletically gifted forward who is also comfortable with the ball at his feet.  Good size.  Willing to play deeper and be part of the possession movement.  Can get frustrated with lack of service.  Was loaned out to Charleston in USL and looked comfortable playing against more experienced defenders.

Jacori Hayes – Wake Forest – CM
Fast and tricky on the ball – has a unique ability to eliminate defenders by turning and running with the ball from anywhere on the field.  Quick change of direction and ability to create himself space for a shot.  Likes to make runs over the top from the #10 position.  Good vision to set up others as well.  Combination of Hayes, Harkes, Dunwell was the best CM group in college soccer.
Stats:

  • 4.4 successful dribbles per 90 - #4 overall, better % than top 3
  • 3.2 fouls suffered per 90 - #2 overall (#1 in total suffered – 78, #2 had 51)
  • 0.49 non-penalty goals + assists per 90 - #2 CM
  • #1 in ACC in total “extra attacking and key passes” attempted and completed (passes that eliminate 3+ defenders and/or lead to a shot)
  • #9 in official ACC shots per game standings (2.36)

Joseph Holland – Hofstra – CM
Non-ACC
Playmaker who can score as well.  Strikes it well from distance and on set pieces.  Covers a ton of ground and moves intelligently in a free role to create a huge portion of Hofstra’s attack.

Tucker Hume – North Carolina – F
Very dangerous on set pieces and good in the air.  Good turning with his back to goal and does surprisingly well to create a shot in tight spaces for a guys his size.  Scored 18 goals in 2 seasons at UNC.
Stats:

  • 0.67 non-penalty goals + assists per 90 - #6 forward, #9 overall
  • 47.1% aerial challenge success – seems low (#106 overall) but was #3 forward

Walker Hume – North Carolina – CB
Similarly to his brother, dangerous on set pieces – good in the air, finds good spots and hangs in the box until the chance is clearly gone.  Right-footed playing on the left side in a 3-back system.  Solid defender when it comes to size but may be vulnerable in 1v1 situations especially out in the channel.
Stats:

  • 0.30 non-penalty goals + assists per 90 - #1 CB
  • 0.13 assists per 90 also #1 CB – keeps the ball alive on a lot of set pieces
  • 71.9% aerial challenge success - #11 overall in ACC, #8 CB
  • 80.3% tackle success - #2 out of 32 CBs – goes against my feeling that he was vulnerable 1v1. Only attempts 3.0 tackles per 90 (#12 CB) compared to Colton Storm’s 4.7 per 90 (#2 CB)
    • Possible explanations – Storm more aggressive?  Teams going at Storm’s side more?  Hume protecting himself by staying out of situations where he needs to tackle? 


Daniel Johnson – Louisville – LM
Right-footed playing on the left side so he can cut inside.  Loves to dribble – very technical and can break defenders down, but some may consider him to be one-dimensional.
Stats:

  • 6.6 successful dribbles per 90 - #1 in ACC (by 1.0 dribble)
  • #3 dribble success rate among OMs (63.2%) – 3x as many attempted/completed as top 2
  • Middle of the pack in most other statistics

Aaron Jones – Clemson – RB
Stats:

  • 69.9 passes attempted per 90 (#3 OB), 56.3 completed (#4 OB)
  • 74.5% tackle success - #5 of 34 OB

Zeiko Lewis – Boston College – RM
Small but strong and very fast.  Wants to run with the ball to create the attack.  Left-footed, likes to shoot and serves dangerous set pieces.
Stats:

  • 1.9 extra attacking and key passes completed per 90 - #4 overall, #2 OM
  • 3.3 successful dribbles per 90 – 10th of 53 OMs
    • 61.5% success rate – 5th among OMs

Jake McGuire – Tulsa – GK
Non-ACC
Quick off his line when he needed to be, made a couple impressive 1v1 saves.  Probably could have done better with the free kick we scored on.  Appeared to be pretty athletic for a good size GK.

Robert Moewes – Duke – GK
Decent shot stopper but sometimes plays too far off his line (see UVA’s game winner in 2016). Did not seem to be overly comfortable with crosses in traffic.

Brian Nana-Sinkam – Stanford – CB
Non-ACC
Overshadowed this year by Hilliard-Arce but solid college CB.  Very aggressive stepping with forwards or to passes in front of him.  Physically strong and good in the air.  More of a destroyer/defender than a ball-playing CB – feet are not his strength.

Chris Nanco – Syracuse – F
InStat and many others categorize him as a forward, some may consider him more of an outside mid/winger… take into consideration when comparing stats.
Stats:

  • 2.6 crosses attempted per 90, 0.9 successful – both #2 of 35 F
  • 7.9 dribbles attempted per 90, 3.3 successful – both #4 of 35 F
  • 0.35 non-penalty goals + assists per 90 – #22 of 35 F
  • #5 in official ACC shots per game standings (2.70)

Aaron’s take: Canadian, Sigma trained winger.  Good speed and acceleration move with a willingness to shoot.  Right-footed although can play either wing and can beat most NCAA full backs 1v1.  Lacks size, also depends too much on his speed and needs to improve his overall play.

Chris Odoi-Atsem – Maryland – RB
Flies forward to provide service.  Technical ability was a bit inconsistent so he relied on athleticism, but often dangerous on the overlap.  His role seemed pretty straightforward – would like to see how he does when things get more complicated.

Evan Panken – Notre Dame – LM
Loves to come inside onto his right foot, and to allow the LB to get around – a key feature of ND’s system.  Gets on the ball frequently, looks to dribble or slip runners.  Great set piece service and very willing to shoot as well.  Seemed to be more impactful in 2015.  Underrated ability to read passing lanes defensively.
Stats:

  • #1 of 53 OM in passes attempted (68.1) & completed (53.0) per 90
    • #9 overall attempted, #18 overall completed
    • 77.9% completion rate - #14 OM
  • 2.2 fouls suffered per 90 - #3 OM, #9 overall
  • 0.33 assists per 90 - #8 OM
  • 5.4 interceptions per 90 - #3 OM

Jo Vetle Rimstad – Radford – CB
Played central in a 3-back system against us – perhaps the only time they played this all season.  Stepped aggressively but intelligently to entry passes.  Composed on the ball, capable on the dribble if he intercepted a pass running forward.  Good in the air but not dominant.  Biggest concern might be first step/pace, though he never got badly exposed.  

Miles Robinson – Syracuse – CB
Played on the right in a 3-back system most of the season.  Athletic and very good in the air.
Stats:

  • #1 CB in aerial challenges won per 90 (7.5), #6 overall
  • 74.1% aerial challenge success - #4 CB, #6 overall
  • 80.0% tackle success - #3 of 32 CB

Aaron’s take: Defender with high athletic upside.  6’2/185 with good speed as well.  Has ball-playing ability to play full back as well.  Strong header of the ball.  Strong long throw.  Needs to improve his general awareness of the game especially marking attackers 1v1.

Eddie Sanchez – Portland – RM/F
Non-ACC
Was often Portland’s most dangerous player.  Likes to go at defenders and can go inside or out.  Was not very concerned with tracking back to defend, but wasn’t really asked to.

Colton Storm – North Carolina – CB
Played on the right in UNC’s 3-back system.  Spent some time the previous year at RWB so would more likely be an OB as a pro.  Solid passer and defender with good athleticism.
Stats:

  • 3.5 successful tackles per 90 - #1 of 32 CBs
  • 70.1 passes attempted per 90 - #1 CB
    • 55.1 completed (#6 CB)
  • 1.5 crosses attempted per 90 - #1 CB by 0.9
    • Often pressed far forward behind Nico Melo and played balls into the box from distance

Brian Wright – Vermont – F
Non-ACC
Big strong target who also runs very well.  Gets in behind and out into the channel – several assists on balls slotted across to the other forward (Bernard Yeboah).  When playing as a lone striker, looks to either go on his own or hold the play up around the 18 while waiting for teammates to arrive. Good all around striker who may draw comparisons to Cyle Larin, though maybe less technical.

ACC Category Leaders

Scoring contribution and passing stats – applicable to all positions.  Includes the top player at each position in the highlighted category, plus notable combine players.

Scoring contribution – highlighting players who produced the most goals (combined non-penalty goals and assists)

Passing stats – highlighting players who completed the most passes per 90 minutes

Tackling, aerial challenges, dribbling – tend to be more applicable to specific position groups.  The below charts include the top few players overall, plus the best at the relevant positions, and any notable combine players.

Tackling – highlighting defenders who won the largest portion of their tackles

Aerial challenges – highlighting players who most consistently won headers

Dribbles – highlighting players who were most dangerous in 1v1 situations

Additional Player Profiles – Aaron Nielsen, Prospect XI

Auden Schilder – Washington – GK
A keeper with great size.  He has great hands and moves very well saving over 80% of shots he faced on target.  Schilder was a non-starter prior to the 2016 season although he played behind other pro quality keepers at Washington.  Most likely a development project if drafted.

Eric Klenofsky – Monmouth – GK
Great size keeper.  Uses his full body when making saves and capable of making game-changing save.  Could be more dominating in the box.  Good distributor of the ball.  Played for smaller school and missed games through injury which has lowered draft stock.

Michael Amick – UCLA – CB
Undersized although intelligent defender who can play both left back and center back.  US Youth National Team experience.  Good technical defender with strong left foot.  Issues over his size and strength and hasn’t become stronger as expected in college.

Francis de Vries – St. Francis PA – CB
New Zealand center back with very strong left foot.  Free kick and penalty taker.  Uses left foot to set up long ball attempts out of the back.  Passes ball 50 yards with ease.  Comfortable with ball at feet although can give up possession against quicker attacker.  Aggressive defender who sometimes overcommits.

Jordan Wilson – Kentucky – CB
No nonsense Scottish defender who might be the best defensive center back in the draft.  Good size 6’3/180 with a strong defensive header for clearing the ball.  Controls set plays and worked well with Kentucky keepers in managing set plays/corners.  Glasgow Rangers trained and father professional player.

Kwame Awuah – Connecticut – LB
Small, left-footed full back/winger with a very good cross.  Canadian and Sigma trained although qualifies as an American signing.  Asked to play more of a forward role at UConn although most effective playing deeper.  On defense can keep up speed and acceleration with most forwards although lack of size hurts him in 1v1 duels especially on set plays.

Billy McConnell – Indiana – LB
Ability to play center or both full back positions.  Strong despite lack of size for a center back.  Good possession passer and strong crosser of the ball if given space.  Decent speed although depends on it too much as a defender and might struggle against more athletically gifted players.

Justin Schmidt – Washington – LB
Versatile left-footed player who can play full back, center back, and holding midfield.  Lacks speed for the full back position but does have a strong cross and shot from distance.  Nice long ball which he can spray across the field.  Good with ball at feet and quick decision maker.  Might not be athletic enough to be a professional player especially in a defensive role.

Reagan Dunk – Denver – RB
Good athletic upside.  Able to run wing although not the fastest full back in draft.  Good cross while moving with the ball.  On the small side for a defender although reads the game well.  Compares well with an Eric Miller.

Brandt Bronico – Charlotte – OM
Compact winger/midfielder with good strength.  Not huge athletic upside but good dribbler of the ball and strong shot from distance.  Good breakaway acceleration although can be chased down by quick defender.  Needs to be more of an aggressive defender and higher work rate to be a pro player.

Abu Danladi – UCLA – F/OM
Attacking winger from the Ghana Right to Play.  Great acceleration including with ball at his feet.  Pro level dribbling skills.  Looks to shoot at every opportunity and has a high shot on target conversion rate based on the type of shots he takes.  Great awareness on the pitch.  Good on the press and knows how to dispossess defenders.  Athletically looks strong although has had injury/health concerns throughout his college career.

Wuilito Fernandes – UMass Lowell – CM
Good strength and size.  Plays smart with ball at feet, more technical than first expected.  An ability to hold ball in possession but needs to improve his passing and finding the open man.  Needs to be motivated and play with effort.  Less active but compares well with Montreal Impact’s Michael Salazar.

Julian Gressel – Providence – OM/F
German winger with good size who was asked to play forward this year with the injury to Mac Steeves.  Attacking player who looks to break on the counter.  Anticipates the ball well and allows the defender to make first move 1v1 and then dribbles by him.  Surprising acceleration especially with ball at feet.  Strong crosser looks for both through ball and long ball opportunities.  Could struggle with fitness/stamina at pro level.

Sam Hamilton – Denver – CM
Gritty holding midfielder who has good passing ability.  The lynchpin to most of Denver’s attacks which led to nine assists during the 2016 season which saw Denver reach the NCAA Final Four.  Lacks some athletic skills and can be outpaced on defense.

Jorge Gomez Sanchez – Temple – CM
Smaller attacking Spanish midfielder with a good touch.  Ability to play attacking midfielder and forward.  Clever left-footed free kick.  Does not have the scoring touch of Delgado although better dribbler with the ball.  Lacks speed and overall athleticism.

Napo Matsoso – Kentucky – OM
Tricky African winger who played high school in the United States.  Plays well with ball at feet with good acceleration and dribbling techniques.  Looks for shot and is able to get himself free and shoot from multiple positions on the pitch.  Small in size and can get closed down by larger players.  Needs to look at the complete field and teammates than just his own opportunities.

Lindo Mfeka – South Florida – OM
Small South African right-footed winger who can also play attacking midfield.  Good strength on the ball with good feet.  Strong dribbler and has enough speed to run by a slower defender.  Limited final product scoring only 16 goals in 72 games.  Better vision than Matsoso and looks more for teammates.  Willing tackler although not his strength.

Shamit Shome – FC Edmonton – CM
Is a ball playing possession central midfielder.  In NASL had a 83.5% passing rating from 443 passes and equally successful in both halves of the field.  Needs to be a more active defender although showed some tackling potential.  Don’t feel there is huge quality here, for example out of contract former Ottawa Fury player Mauro Eustaquio (23 years old) actually outperformed him in most key CM head-to-head stats in NASL last season.

Jackson Yueill – UCLA – CM
Star with Minnesota USSDA side, while looked good at UCLA it could be said he also underperformed.  Did do well in finding his teammates including registering 17 assists in 40 games although many assists were goals on individual performances by teammates.  Was most effective in the midfield both dictating possession and pressing opponents and could develop into more of a defensive midfielder.  Has good athletic skills, better than average speed especially in full stride although lacks acceleration.

Tanner Thompson – Indiana – OM
Reads the game well.  Can play with possession in the midfield.  Possesses a good cross and can beat smaller defenders 1v1 although can be dominated by more athletic/quicker defenders.  Slower and less dynamic than his younger brother Tommy Thompson.

Christopher Wehan – New Mexico – OM
An attacking midfielder/winger with a strong right footed shot.  Pro free kick taker.  Good instincts in terms of attacking the goal.  Lacks speed and athleticism in open play to be effective.  Needs to show greater defensive effort to be considered as a pro.

Nazeem Bartman – South Florida – F
Confident winger/forward from South Africa with good speed.  Runs the break/counter very well looking for open space or to attract defenders away from the ball carrier.  One-footed shooter although strong right foot.  Good at short passing but poor crosser.  Good potential but needs to be more active to be effective.

Guillermo Delgado – Delaware – F
Small Spanish forward who has very good offensive instincts.  Played with both Philadelphia and Seattle PDL sides.  Excels at taking advantage of the defender which might not have the same success at the pro level.

Nick DePuy – UC Santa Barbara – F
Static target man who used to play center back.  Good finisher, strong header, depends on teammates to create chances although can hold the ball up if necessary.  Compares well with an Adam Jahn. 

David Goldsmith – Butler – F
English forward who plays the game tactically smart to set up opportunities for himself.  Lacks athletic upside although has good vertical for headers in the box.  Presses very well looking to dispossess the ball.  Plays offside trap well although doesn’t have the burst of speed needed at the pro level.

Adonijah Reid – ANB Futbol – F
A smaller attacking striker (last time I saw him he was about 5’7) in the mod of TFC Academy prospect Ayo Akinola.  Been identified as a top player in the Southern Ontario region since U12 although played most of his games in the Toronto suburbs with his club team ANB Futbol and his high school where he won the Ontario Championship last spring.  After failed trials in France played with ANB Futbol in League1 Ontario where he ended up as the league’s top goalscorer at 16 years of age.  The league average age is around 19 although a large amount of players in their early 20s.  Fairly sturdy for his size and could play wing on in the midfield if asked.  Major concern IMO is that he doesn’t have any outstanding attributes and I feel return is as much based on competition than outstanding ability.

Niko Hansen – New Mexico – F
Tenacious winger/forward who enjoys chasing the ball.  Lacks some technical skill on the ball.  Good speed and athletic upside.  Good shot when he has time on the ball while quick shot is a bit wayward.  Less athletic but can compare to a Dominique Badji. 

Connor Maloney – Penn State – F
Small forward although good final touch.  Plays off most defenders as a second striker either beating defenders to low crosses or as an unmarked player.  Good speed although not as fast as other smaller players in the draft.  Hard working with success throughout his high school and college career.  Philadelphia Union trained.