WESTMINSTER CO (By Patrick Shea for ColoradoRapids.com) — I was a member of Club 113 the first group cut from a field of 190 aspiring Colorado Rapids players who attended the 2006 open tryout at the club’s Westminster facility on Saturday February 4.
A smaller group of 77 players rotated through three full-field games after we were let go and then the coaching staff whittled the list to 24 for a final scrimmage. By mid-afternoon five players remained behind with an invitation to train with the team and possibly travel to Mexico Florida and Spain as part of the pre-season training camp.
Seung Meang a South Korean-born midfielder from Maryland was the lone non-Coloradoan from the final fab five. Zack Kobilca came from Aurora and the other three finalists were part of the undefeated Division II National Championship team from Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado. Last December Nick Clark Bryan Eisenbraun and Cole Sweetster played key roles in the Skyhawks’ 3-1 victory over Franklin Pierce College.
Luckily the Fort Lewis bunch landed on the same team for the initial round of the open tryout although they were split up for the final.
"It helped a lot for communication noted Clark the goalkeeper. "And it helped to be able to talk to your buddies between games." Clark was actually a late addition to the final four-man list.
Gesturing to Meang Clark said "I got scored on. He decided he was sick of me looking good down there." Meang’s wicked right-footed banana swerved past Clark in the final game.
Meang played one year at Eastern Mennonite University a Division III team but then he dropped out and played with the Chesapeake Bay Dragons in the Professional Development League (PDL). Kobilca played at the University of Denver and he got regular time with the Boulder Rapids Reserve training in conjunction with the Rapids once a week last summer.
A little under half of the players were local but others hailed from as far as Canada Mexico Nigeria and the Ivory Coast and one fellow from Spain added the tryout as an interesting twist to his American vacation.
The Flow of Events
Saturday’s trial was the fourth one I’ve experienced and described for the press since 1985 and it was by far the most fair. (See "Stabs in the dark" below.) The sheer number of attentive coaches accounted for a lot of the fairness. But the players also had adequate time to show something special on the field during our four 20-minute games. As Rapids assistant coach John Murphy said during the opening announcements "Don’t hold back. Give us everything you have from the start."
This was Murphy’s show and while he continued his introduction the guy next to me answered a ringing cell phone and carried on a drab conversation while unwittingly insulting someone with potential sway over his future paychecks.
Murphy noted how three players were offered contracts from the pool last year (Josh Elbaum Stephen Keel and Michael Cardenas who the club waived later). But the Boulder Rapids Reserve head coach and owner (Peter Ambrose) and the Colorado Springs PDL coach were also on hand to scope out the talent. In fact the Boulder Reserve will hold their open tryout on the weekend of April 22.
Head coach Fernando Clavijo could not have been more succinct with his loaded message before the start of the tryout. "If you get hurt Clavijo said "We have trainers here." The implication echoed Murphy’s plea to not hold back.
Although no one was seriously injured many players limped away later with cramps and knocks to take home as mementos. None of the final five were hurt.
The first skill players had to demonstrate was part orienteering part common sense. Each player received a field and team number when he signed in but when it came time to get started many players roamed in confusion.
Eventually everyone settled in place and the first game started like a Sabaki Challenge. It was immediately apparent that sympathy and restarts for fouls were not on the agenda. If you got nailed you had no choice but to get up and play on. I realized how lame it would be for me to ruin the chances of a legitimate contender with a clumsy tackle so I decided to avoid conflict and try to get the ball through stealth instead of strength. With small fields and full-size goals it’s better to simply be an obstruction anyway. The matadors flicked their red capes all morning but I never bit. My man never smoked me like a salmon but I also realize I didn’t do anything noteworthy (other than a few errant passes).
My team won three skirmishes and tied one. Thomas and Kevin the two defenders with me in the back ended up against one another two cuts later for the final game of the day. Playing with them was easy. Thomas got everything in the air and Kevin got everything on the ground.
Our center midfielder was a fellow named George from New York. He rarely lost the ball his tackles were tough and he delivered some perfect passes for goals. I really like the way he played but he didn’t get the nod for the final 24.
Another guy really stood out for us up front but I can’t remember his name or number. He stayed wide on the left and always did something dangerous. He even did that one Ronaldihno move flicking the ball out with his right at first but then cutting it back to his left before screaming down the line and delivering crosses or scoring.
After our four games in 90 minutes Murphy assembled the group to make the first cut. A couple of realists next to me were putting on their sweats before Murphy even starting calling out numbers. "Let’s eat at that Mexican place again one player said. "Or maybe Hooters." These guys weren’t too heart-broken but it was hard on other players who didn’t advance particular the guys with wives girlfriends and parents who came to witness the tryouts up close.
"We respect and appreciate all of you for coming down today Murphy said before announcing the numbers for round two. He said the coaches didn’t break down the selection by position at all. They were looking for versatility. "If you’re good you can adapt Murphy said.
As the former Fort Lewis captain Eisenbraun noted later "I actually played forward in the end. At one point we had two forwards at central back and a defender up front." At the close of the NCAA Division II playoffs in December Eisenbraun received the Most Outstanding Defensive Player award for his consistent performance.
Cut Number Two
The players whose numbers had been called quickly went to their fields along with a player whose number was not called. Coach Murphy should receive a medal for neither cursing out loud nor wringing the fellow’s neck when he discovered the shyster had slipped into the mix. But Murphy credited the guy’s moxie.
The quality of play was notably higher for the full-field rotation. And the games flowed more realistically without playing 12-on-12 in a tiny mosh pit. Thomas had a bad touch in the first game but he scored a header off a corner on the next play to help erase the memory. Both Thomas and Kevin are friends with Amir Lowery who is now in his second year with the Rapids. They played through injuries on Saturday and Thomas said the altitude affected him more than he thought it would. But neither the knocks nor the thin air kept them from facing each other in the final selection.
George continued with his steady imitation of El Pibe during the second round but his team started to dissolve in the last game and gave up a goal. George never sparkled with highlight-reel antics and he didn’t stray from the center of the field. Perhaps he should have made some runs up front to get a little attention for himself. Did he take a gamble by playing properly and hoping the coaches noticed?
Reluctantly I did player ratings for MLS games from 1997-1999. I don’t believe in recording quality this way because a player might take the most conservative route possible to help his team win and none of these contributions would show up on a stat sheet. Soccer isn’t like figure skating. But to be fair I devised a comprehensive system that took all the aspects of the game into account. George would have gotten a seven or eight from me and a few fives or sixes made it into the final scrimmage.
Cut Number Three
The final game seemed short to me but it probably felt longer to the players who had been on field for five hours already. Again the level of play was a notch higher and it was pretty obvious that more than a dozen guys were capable of pressuring for a spot on the Colorado roster.
But only four would get the chance. The others would have to research other teams (in Colorado and beyond). Although they didn’t receive an invitation to hike up the hill to the headquarters Thomas and Kevin said they plan to land a spot on a team somewhere even in another country if necessary.
The coaches admitted they might miss a player. But if a guy has the drive he can find another team that fits. And playing is only one component of a professional’s career in this country. Soccer pros are like tennis pros because the work isn’t limited to the field. They also coach clubs conduct camps and they might even have to ref a game or two if they want to earn a living through the sport.
Stabs In The Dark
Working as a reporter for the Gazette Telegraph in Colorado Springs I received an assignment to cover the local Olympic soccer team trials at the United States Air Force Academy in 1985. I threw my cleats in the trunk just in case and after waiting out the drizzle in my car I ended up filling the number 22 spot so we could have a full scrimmage. As it turned out the coach spent less time with us than the amount of time he was late and not a single player received an invitation.
When Dave Dir directed the MLS open tryouts in November of 1995 I was one of the 185 guys angling for a slice of the league payroll. Dir and the coaching crew were very thorough and even though the first-year Rapids ended up with a few pylons the overall process seemed fairly fair. I made it through three cuts but no one advanced from that event.
Eric Wynalda gave a very fair shot for all the guys who auditioned for "The Game of Their Lives" movie at Rafael Amaya’s indoor facility in Westminster a couple years ago. This too involved about 180 or 200 guys. I made it through three cuts to get on camera and that’s when my road to Hollywood was blocked for good.
But the open tryout on Saturday is no comparison to my circus auditions of the past. The entire pool of participants was competent and the level of play was far above my previous three outings. Most people agree that MLS has improved considerably since its inception 10 years ago.
From the perspective of these open tryouts the improvement is even more extensive. I expect exponential improvement in the coming years.
One of my teammates on Saturday an attacker named Christopher said he would suffer a serious pay-cut if he left his job at IBM. But still he found a four-hour network monitoring shift that started at 4:00 every morning which would have given him enough time to switch gears for 10:00 training in Westminster. He had thought this through.
All the players put some serious consideration into the tryout on Saturday ultimately pushing their soccer dreams.
"We can’t tell you how to respond coach Murphy admitted before making the first cut. "If you throw your cleats in the closet and quit that’s up to you."
"Never was the response from another Club 113 castoff. "I will always play."
Patrick Shea is a journalist who covers soccer for several electronic media outlets. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and not necessarily those of the Colorado Rapids or ColoradoRapids.com.