Ranking players based on their performances in a three-game MLS Combine when they’ve played thousands of minutes in front of fans and video cameras sounds so insane it’s amazing allegedly-respectable writers actually do it.
I have in front of me the Google News results for Kyle Bekker, a midfielder out of Boston College eligible for tomorrow’s MLS SuperDraft. There are a few articles on Bekker’s signing with MLS a week and a half ago, but mostly we’re seeing articles on his performance at the MLS Combine. Here’s MLSSoccer.com pumping his tires, saying Bekker is “at the Combine playing for draft positioning – and he’s doing a good job of it.” Fair enough; the league’s official website can be expected to promote every aspect of its product. But Sportsnet’s Nick Sabetti also nominates Bekker as a high pick as he “has also done well at the combine.” TSN.ca says Bekker “is also expected to be a very high selection in the 2013 draft” and never made such lofty pronouncements in previous months.
Ives Galarcep’s final pre-Combine mock draft had Bekker going at eighteenth overall to the Montreal Impact; Galarcep offered no explanatory notes but the Canadian-to-a-Canadian-team factor is obvious. Now Galarcep is expecting Toronto FC to trade up and take Bekker fifth overall. MLSSoccer.com goes further, with its mock draft panel unanimously expecting Bekker to go third and each of Simon Borg, Matt Doyle, and Jason Saghini citing the Combine as his reason why. Prior to the combine Saghini had Bekker at number three purely because of his nationality (“Toronto don’t have the opportunity to trade down and take him later with Vancouver prowling at No. 5.”) while Borg said number five (nationality again; “Vancouver have vowed to make a more concerted effort to develop players for the Canadian national team.”) and Doyle said eighteen. Give Saghini points for prescience, but all the others made important changes because of the MLS combine. Aaron Nielsen of Red Nation Online stands out: he has Bekker going twenty-first to an American team, horror of all horrors.
This seems like giving the MLS Combine undue prominence. It’s a five-day non-competitive series of scrimmages at Fort Lauderdale’s Central Broward Regional Park where the main field is a cricket oval. Kyle Bekker played four seasons at Boston College on a variety of fields under competitive pressure. Who on earth would judge a player with over 5,000 competitive minutes based on whether he had a good or a bad week? When you think about it for a fraction of a second, using the MLS combine games to judge a player seems indefensible, yet it keeps happening.
Here are Bekker’s statistics, as best I could compile them, from his college career. Minutes played will not be exact and, in 2011 and 2012, are almost more speculation than fact: NCAA statistics keeping is nightmarish and many box scores posted don’t list minutes played. As always, these are regular season only; no ACC tournament or NCAA playoffs.
It took me a few hours to compile that from the Boston College website. One expects that an MLS team would be able to hassle the MLS front office or Boston College for these or more accurate figures, or in a pinch get a team of interns to work full-time for a few days. There’s no possibility any MLS team which is even faintly doing its job won’t have information at least that good for every college prospect of note.
I see what look like nice offensive performances for a midfielder. Boston College was by no means a dominant team but, as an attacking midfielder, Bekker consistently posted what look like strong numbers. At a glance, Bekker’s “disappointing” senior year offensively was just his shots not going in, coming off the heels of a junior year where he was shooting what in MLS I would call a high percentage for a midfielder. He did it without help from the spot. I don’t know how this relates to other top NCAA prospects, I’m far from an expert on American college soccer so I can’t say whether Bekker is properly rated, but one hopes those making picks for Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal are experts. That’s their job.
A few of Bekker’s games were also televised on ESPN-3, Fox Soccer Network, and the like, and no doubt Boston College had their own records. There would have been hours of video which would have been easily available to any professional scout without leaving Vancouver. In Bekker’s case, he also played televised games with the Canadian U-23 team, but that doesn’t help most players in this draft pool. So while you can’t judge Bekker’s all-round play from the statistics, you certainly can from the reams of tape. That’s without considering the added expense of sending scouts to watch Bekker in person, or the time-consuming process of canvassing college coaches and scouts for their take, but you’d hope serious teams evaluating top prospects would go to the trouble.
The only advantage to MLS Combine games is seeing the top draft prospects all together, and that’s an advantage counterbalanced by the uselessly short timeframe, compressed game schedule, odd conditions (cricket pitch, 40-minute halves, frequent substitutions, etc.), every player being out to boost their stock rather than win the match, and the fact that playing a bunch of NCAA prospects isn’t a preview of MLS anyway.
The rest of the combine may have value. You can talk to the players, get a feel for their personality, their intelligence, and their eagerness to play for your team. You can answer niggling questions. The marketing department no doubt likes the buildup to draft day. But the games themselves seem like an almost total waste for any but the most obscure players, for what performance could Bekker or anybody else possibly produce that outweighs several seasons of well-witnessed, videotaped, statistically tracked college play, particularly in an environment so unlike competitive soccer? You’d have to be completely insane.
Bekker’s Team AdiZero played three games. Let’s suppose Bekker played every minute of them (he didn’t, not even close, but we’ll pretend). That’s 240 minutes. Between August 29, 2011 and September 4, 2011 with Boston College Bekker played 270 minutes (approximate) with three goals, two assists, four shots on target, and sixteen shots directed. Fine offensive figures for a forward, let alone a midfielder! But if you tried to rank Bekker highly in your mock draft because he was really good from August 29 to September 4 last year you would be laughed out of the room. Change those dates to January 11, 2013 and January 15, 2013, and this apparently becomes a respectable argument. 240 minutes, against anybody, doesn’t prove anything. With 40-minute halves on a weird field with an unfamiliar team against an equally unfamiliar opponent with everybody trying to get noticed, results not mattering at all, and the normal rules of soccer on hold, people are trying to convince us that makes them more important.
Maybe the fetish of the combine is just lazy, stupid writers trying to feign expertise by watching a few games of semi-soccer and pronouncing SuperDraft judgment rather than doing the research, and maybe (hopefully) the teams making the decisions know better than to trust something so ridiculous, but the last thing we need in North America is more uninformed soccer writing passing itself off as useful, because that’s how both fans and teams in this country make mistakes and hurt our game. Just say no to the games at the MLS combine.
 — Doyle, Matthew. “MLS Combine: Canadians shine, Finley debuts on Day 2.” MLSSoccer.com, January 13, 2013. Accessed January 16, 2013. http://www.mlssoccer.com/superdraft/2013/news/article/2013/01/13/mls-combine-canadians-bekker-welshman-lead-way.
 — Sabetti, Nick. “Impact seeking depth at MLS draft.” Sportsnet.ca, January 15, 2013. Accessed January 15, 2013. http://www.sportsnet.ca/soccer/2013/01/15/mls_draft_2013_montreal_impact/.
 — Galarcep, Ives. “SBI 2013 MLS mock draft (version 3.0).” Soccer by Ives, January 11, 2013. Accessed January 15, 2013. http://www.soccerbyives.net/2013/01/sbi-2013-mls-mock-draft-version-3-0.html.
 — Galarcep, Ives. “TFC, Rapids line moves as looming trades are set to shake up MLS draft.” Soccer by Ives, January 16, 2013. Accessed January 16, 2013. http://www.soccerbyives.net/2013/01/tfc-rapids-line-moves-as-looming-trades-are-set-to-shake-up-mls-draft.html.
 — Borg, Simon et al. “Final mock draft: See how MLSsoccer.com editors line ’em up.” MLSSoccer.com, January 16, 2013. Accessed January 16, 2013. http://www.mlssoccer.com/superdraft/2013/news/article/2013/01/16/final-mock-draft-see-how-mlssoccercom-editors-pick-em.
 — Borg, Simon et al. “MLSsoccer.com’s 2013 Mock Draft: Pre-Combine edition.” MLSSoccer.com, January 10, 2013. Accessed January 16, 2013. http://www.mlssoccer.com/superdraft/2013/news/article/2013/01/10/mlssoccercoms-2013-mock-draft-pre-combine-edition.
 — Nielsen, Aaron. “RedNation 2013 MLS Mock SuperDraft.” Red Nation Online, January 15, 2013. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://www.rednationonline.ca/Articles2012/RNO2013MLSMockSuperDraft.aspx.
 — “Central Broward Regional Park & Stadium.” Broward.org. http://www.broward.org/Parks/CentralBrowardRegionalPark/Pages/Default.aspx.
 — Kyle Bekker college statistics from: “Men’s soccer schedule.” BCEagles.com. Accessed January 15, 2013. http://www.bceagles.com/sports/m-soccer/sched/bc-m-soccer-sched.html.