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Thursday, July 31, 2008
MLS scouting habits

With last week's All-Star game signaling the unofficial halfway point of season 13 of MLS, it is fair to say the league has never had a more cosmopolitan outlook. According to a press release put out by league headquarters during the week before the season commenced, approximately 35 percent of the league's players were born in 46 countries outside the United States. Without knowing the precise numbers, it is clear that, just over three months later, this diversity has accelerated still further.

Gone forever, it seems, are the days when the draft was seen as the best way to boost a roster. Indeed, given the development of the way teams recruit players, coupled with the increasing tendency for the best young players to opt out of the draft process entirely by signing with foreign clubs -- more than ever before, organizations are looking further and further afield for new blood.

This sea change in the league's landscape, when compared to its outlook at inception, means that the need for coaches to travel to find players, as opposed to having talent delivered to them through the draft, is greater than ever before.

Comparing this fledgling league with its well-established foreign counterparts is nonsensical. For example, while great advances have been made, MLS clubs still do not have a scouting network at their disposal that is taken for granted by many throughout the rest of the world. It follows that, until something like a comparable system is in place, the goal of having a league that stands alongside the best in the world will remain difficult to attain.

Building a network of trusted sources is a lengthy task that is continuously ongoing, as coaches meet and develop working relationships with colleagues throughout the soccer planet. The importance placed on personal contacts makes even more vital the continuity an organization shows in its head coaching position. When the man at the top goes, so too does his book of contacts.

So how do MLS clubs find players? The tried and trusted method, of course, is for coaches to travel to watch players they have identified as targets. However, the truth is that boarding a plane is one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

With the exception of proven players, of whom the need to evaluate in the flesh is reduced due to their well-known body of work, most recruitment begins on paper or in electronic form. MLS clubs receive résumés on a daily basis from across the world, virtually all of which are diligently read, for fear a diamond in the rough may be missed.

A player's chances of getting a second look might increase if he can provide a video or DVD of himself in action. If a coach sees something he likes, stage two is to start asking questions.

"You try and evaluate them and, if there's anything you like, you dig a little bit deeper," said Steve Nicol, coach of the New England Revolution. "It's a whole process. Do you need them? Can you get them? What will it cost to buy them? What will the salary be?"

The route to a right answer is a precarious one for coaches, who must garner impartial views wherever possible. Moreover, as useful as is picking up the phone, writing an e-mail or even watching a video or DVD can be, there is no substitute for packing a bag and traveling to watch a target in action. Once that decision has been made, as Nicol explains, it is a matter of hoping that some of the factors, which he cannot control, play out in his favor.

"You would like to think that, by the time you finally go to see them, it is not a hit or miss thing. You think you know what you are going to see and if you see it then that's it. If you don't then you have a problem. You only go and see them for one game so you might pick the wrong game either way. It's not straightforward, that's for sure."

In the past offseason, Nicol spent more time than ever before on the road as he sought to boost a Revolution squad that lost a number of key members following the 2007 campaign. The Revolution boss added Mauricio Castro to his roster after a scouting trip to Honduras, having last summer secured the services of Gambian duo, Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, after watching them in action at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada.

The form of the trio in the first half of the season has been a big reason for the Revs' ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference standings but the money invested in recruiting, which includes travel expenses for those scouting as well as contracts and salaries for the players, means that there is some way to go before these signings prove to be total value. By contrast, the SuperDraft offers a cheaper and more local resource of players, although its capacity to provide immediate contributors may be on the wane.

In addition to some of the best players opting out, the annual event is also damaged by its timing. Held as it is ever January, the draft takes place almost two months after the college season is completed, meaning the combine which precedes it usually features players that have not kicked a ball in anger for some time. Many are shown up at the showcase.

In the future, it may be that the fledgling youth development system currently being developed by MLS makes the SuperDraft almost irrelevant. The more traditional method of clubs signing their best young players to professional deals and circumventing the college system would also increase the importance of a local scouting network, as clubs keep tabs on the best young talent within their catchment area.

As MLS grows as a league, so the interest in it of potential participants grows. Despite that, however, the challenge remains for clubs to ensure that they spend their salary cap wisely each year. Not for them is there the financial flexibility to sign a player on a hunch and simply open the wallet again should those best-laid plans fail to come to fruition.

A single entity system does not lend itself to a more developed scouting system. The fact that clubs do not have the financial freedom to spend what they want on who they want, means there is little incentive for them to place a network of talent-spotters on their own payroll.

However, with all that being said, the influx of new talent each year demonstrates the present health of the league as well as its bright future. As time goes by, so might the salary cap increase and offer even greater potential for development in the area of player recruitment. Until then, the onus will continue to fall on coaches to answer their phones, check their e-mail and make sure their DVD player is in good working order.