I feel incredibly lucky. I can look back on my life and tell you the exact moment it all changed.
The MLS Combine can make (or break) a player's career. It set mine in motion.
It began in February 1999. I had a fairly good year as a senior at the University of Connecticut, but to say I was a highly touted player wouldn't be true. However, when I received my combine invitation, and therefore the opportunity to train in front of MLS coaches, I knew I would get a chance to prove my worth.
For players that are considered legitimate professional prospects (US Youth National Team or Generation adidas signees) the combine is a formality. That was not the case for me. I knew I had to show well in order to get a trial with a club.
Coaches, general managers and technical directors scout most combine players throughout the year. Opinions have typically been formed long before it all begins, but fringe players don't get the luxury of mailing it in at the combine. I was one of those players.
Prior to the 1999 combine I had trained with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars and the Colorado Rapids. The thought of playing for well-respected coaches like Bora Milotinovic or the late Glenn "Mooch" Myernick had me excited about what could be on the horizon, but I still had to show well. With good fortune, I was able to do just that. Suddenly I was standing out more than ever before, and I literally jumped up the draft board.
Before I knew it (and mostly based on my performance at the combine), Dallas selected me with the sixth overall pick in the draft -- coincidentally, just in front of both New York and Colorado. With that my life's direction was set forth, and with a 10-year playing career, a beautiful wife I met in Dallas, two loving kids and a job as a TV analyst to show for it, I'd say I did pretty well thanks to my performance at the MLS Combine.
But what happens to a player who doesn't perform well at the combine? Doubt. That's the word that creeps into the mind of every talent evaluator in attendance. Regardless of positive scouting trip reports, a poor performance can quickly become the topic of combine conversation and completely alter the path a player was set on.
There are some athletes who are prone to performing poorly at a combine. Perhaps they take all the pressure on themselves, tending to over-think and over-complicate their play. Managers like players who can keep it simple. For MLS teams that need immediate production, they become less inclined to select a long-term project. Before you know it, a player with ability may suddenly find himself on the outside looking in, and the chance is lost.
In 2011, the talent pool available for selection has never been deeper. The importance of a good combine performance is still vital for fringe talent. Combine success gives managers a level of trust. A poor combine performance creates doubt, and with an accountability for the on-field product like never before, MLS clubs may be less hesitant to take a chance.
The only real advice I can offer to this year's crop of players currently down at the combine is to embrace the challenge and prepare to enjoy the ride. I'm living proof that your career -- and your entire life, for that matter -- can all change based on the chance given at the MLS Combine.