Photo by MLS/Andy Mead
By VINCE MADURI
LAUDERHILL, Fla.– MLS teams attending the Combine in hopes of finding a centerback or two to try and grab for depth have been treated to a pleasant surprise. What they have found is an impressive pool of centerbacks.
The general consensus is that Andrew Farrell is the top talent in this draft and he has done nothing to disprove that theory in Ft. Lauderdale through two games. The center back consistently looks athletic, deals with one-on-one situations cleanly and appears the dominant physical force on the field for 90 minutes.
“He’s a great defender,” midfield teammate Kyle Bekker told SBI. “He’s so athletic. It’s comforting to know you have someone like him behind you rather than trying to break him down if he’s playing on the other team. So, it’s nice to have him on your side.”
Farrell’s partner in the Blue center of defense, Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, also impressed for a second straight day.
“It wasn’t my best game ever but it wasn’t horrible,” Tucker-Gangnes said afterwards. “There are some things I can work on. I think I could have been a little cleaner in my passing, maybe a little stronger in the air. Maybe that’s being a little critical of myself but I know I have more to give.”
Tucker-Gangnes was more critical of himself than most observers were. His performance on Sunday was a solid one. The Washington product showed strong positioning skills and dealt with the one-on-one situations he was given cleanly. Even with Farrell next to him, Tucker-Gangnes never looked like he was over-reliant on his partner’s athletic ability, which was a big plus. Many defenders in that situation might sit back and let Farrell do the work.
On the adiPower (Red) side, the tandem of Eric Schoenle and Kofi Opare were tested repeatedly by Oregon State forward Emery Welshman, who had a spectacular afternoon. Welshman’s form, combined with the Blue midfield controlling the play for much of the time, meant wave after wave of attack. To the adiPower defense’s credit, they worked hard and limited much of the damage.
“I thought we started pretty slow in the first half,” Schoenle said. “We gave up two goals so there were things we could definitely fix. But we just learned from them. Then we came out really strong in the second half. We made a few changes, got a goal back and I thought that really boosted us.”
Two left backs also did well in that game, but for different reasons.
Kory Kindle dealt with the speed out wide of Erik Hurtado. While Welshman interchanged with Hurtado on a few occasions, Kindle kept his cool and positioning. Overall, he was very sound defensively given the test at hand.
Taylor Kemp looked terrific going forward on day two, in a vast improvement from Friday when he didn’t show up too much. On one occasion he delivered a terrific through ball down the left hand side into the box. Erik Hurtado then flicked the ball back behind him with a back heel in what should have led to a goal but the finish went wayward.
In the second game, both defenses held strong in a 0-0 draw. Two things really stood out in this game.
The first, Tommy Muller is very solid in his positioning and in his leadership over the back line.
“I kind of just wanted to continue to do what I’ve been doing,” Muller said after the game. “I think being better organized in the back was something we could improve on the last game. Just kind of as we all get to know each other. Just win balls, connect passes, try to be a leader on the back line.”
If it weren’t for his smaller frame, Muller might be talked about more often as someone who should go higher in the Draft.
“I think it was mentioned I’m going to be playing a little right back [on Tuesday]. So just a new position and doing well in that, making the right decisions, trying to get forward more is something I can be working on.”
If Muller shows well at right back Tuesday, that could do wonders to his draft stock in a relatively weak class of right backs.
The second thing that stood out in this game was Eriq Zavaleta as a center back. On day one, he wasn’t too impressive playing center forward. But on day two, he looked spectacular in defense.
Zavaleta looked very comfortable on the ball, stepped into the midfield launching a few long balls to the forwards and worked very well with Muller in the center of defense.
“I think he’s great,” Muller said. “Playing with him today was great. It was easy. We covered each other nicely. We played well together.”
The question remains which role he is more suited to at the pro level. But if day two at the Combine was any indication, he could be a dominant MLS defender with some seasoning.