MLS Combine: Who Should New England Be Watching?

Jared Wickerham

Forwards and fullbacks should be the top targets for the Revolution as they prepare for next week's SuperDraft where they currently possess four picks including the fourth overall. So which players should Revs fans be keeping an eye on?

As the MLS community turns its attention this weekend to Florida for the 2013 MLS Combine ahead of next week's SuperDraft, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the players that Revs fans may want to keep an eye on.

Forwards

We all know that New England is looking to draft some forwards, and there is a good chance that we will use our 4th overall pick on one. The way that most experts predict the draft to play out, there's a high likelihood that the Revolution will have their pick of the litter, so to speak, as far as forwards go. There are some obvious stand-outs, but also plenty of pros and cons to weigh. Here are some of the top options that will likely be available to Jay Heaps and company come January 17th.

Jason (J.J.) Johnson - I've seen several pundits compare Johnson to Saer Sene in that he can play as a central striker but is also effective on the wings (namely the left). He is also left-footed like Sene. I think what he offers over Sene, however, is a more physical presence. Sene looked fragile at times last season, getting easily muscled off the ball and shying away from headers. Johnson has a big frame and, from the highlights I've seen, looks more than willing to throw his weight around to win the ball, however his technical skill is mostly responsible for that. Much like we saw from Sene in 2012, Johnson tracks back into the midfield to win the ball back, which is a truly valuable asset and one that the Revolution technical staff will be looking for. The biggest con, however, is that Johnson would force the Revs to use up their remaining international spot to draft him. That would be, in my opinion, the only reason not to take him in the first round. Johnson had a relatively quiet first game at the combine, but did manage tally himself an assist. The highlight reel below is worth your full attention.

Jason Johnson - VCU Soccer 2012 (via cdbtown)

Eriq Zavaleta - Zavaleta has been highly touted throughout his college career (with national champions Indiana University), and with good reason. A center-back/forward hybrid, he's got size and a good soccer brain to compliment it. The Revs would likely be looking to use him as a forward, but his ability to play on the back-line would provide some additional depth, which is always nice to have. As a forward, Zavaleta plays a pretty true #9 whose main responsibilities are holding up the ball in the attacking third, making crucial passes to other ensuing attackers, and putting away the loose balls in and around the box. He doesn't have the speed of some of the other forward options available to the Revs, but he has plenty of other qualities to offer. Zavaleta also notched an assist on Friday in his first match at the combine.

Kekuta Manneh - The 18-year-old is the youngest player at the combine and is a special case in that he does not come from the college ranks. Manneh was on scouts' watch lists because of his contributions at his club the Austin Aztex who play in the USL Premier Development League. Manneh is a small-ish, speedy forward who excels at taking on defenders 1-v-1 and can finish with either foot. The Gambian's first day at the combine was a bright one as he notched a goal and showcased his full arsenal of talents. For the Revs, Manneh would be a complimentary player to a forward who is able to hold the ball up. He will need the support of the midfield to execute the kinds of passes that will find him through a lane in the attacking third. His stock is on the rise after scoring in his combine debut, but, like Johnson, he would take up an international spot if drafted, despite being signed to a Generatioin Adidas contract.

Chris Thomas - Another player who had a great showing on day one of the combine, Thomas comes from Elon University where he scored 23 goals in his 2012 season. Thomas has been labeled by scouts as having an instinctual finishing ability around the goal as well as great composure and vision in the attack. Unlike Zavaleta, Thomas is not a target forward and does not hold-up the ball as well, but is truly dangerous when given some space and could be the Revs' answer to Saer Sene starting the 2013 season on the sidelines as he recovers from his ACL surgery. Thomas could very well fall to the second round, and New England would be hard-pressed not to scoop him up if they can.

Other forwards to watch: DeShorn Brown (GA), Ashton Bennett, Ryan Finlay, Charlie Rugg

Fullbacks

Once the Revolution nab themselves a forward, they will need to turn their attention to the defense where they are very thin at fullback depth. The New England roster currently has one true left-back, Tyler Polak, who saw little to no playing time (one game) in 2012, and a left midfielder turned left-back in Chris Tierney. Tierney is the resident starter, with Polak doing little to push for the spot in 2012, so drafting a left-back might need to be the next priority on the New England agenda. And if there's one thing this draft class can offer, it's a wealth of talented left-backs.

Jimmy Nealis - Nealis is coming into the draft after a remarkable season with Gerogetown where he helped lead the Hoyas to the NCAA CollegeCup finals. Nealis has good speed on defense and, most notably, can provide effective wide service with his crossing ability. Nealis would be sure to push Tierney for the starting role.

Taylor Kemp - The other top option for left-backs seems to be Kemp, who also had a memorable season with the University of Maryland before they were upset before the semi-finals CollegeCup. Kemp is also known for providing great service from the position, though he has a brief history with injuries in his 2012 season. Still, should Nealis already be drafted before the first of the Revs' 2nd round picks (they have 3), then they should select Kemp (or vice-versa).

Kory Kindle - Kindle might just be an under-the-radar player that can make his way to the Revolution roster depending on how the draft plays out. Kindle played for CSU Bakersfield where he was converted from a forward to the left-back position. He might not offer as much on defense as Nealis or Kemp, but is a constant threat in the attack. Kindle boasts a great shot from long-range and likes to take on defenders 1-v-1 when pinching in towards goal. The Revolution may want to stick with a left-back that can offer more width, but it would be hard to turn down Kindle if he was available later in the draft.

Kory Kindle CSUB (via Bill Shannon)

Other left-backs to watch: Dylan Remick, Greg Cochrane, Nico Clavijo

With Kevin Alston as the only right-back on the roster (unless the team can come to an agreement with re-entry draft selection Hunter Freeman), the Revs will also need to look at options on the right side of the defense in this year's draft. But unlike the top left-back options that are available, quality right-backs are not as common. The best option, in my opinion, is Drew Beckie. Beckie, a member of the Canadian U23 team, was a late call-up for the combine, but is a real talent that might be worth a reach for New England in the second round. Beckie was an integral part of the back-line for both his college team, the University of Denver, as well as his club team, the Ottawa Fury, who play in the USL PDL.

Drew Beckie (via DenverMensSoccer)

The other solid option at right-back worth consideration for New England is Joe Franco from Cal State Northridge. Franco would also be a great depth addition for the Revs, but is coming off an ACL injury. Nevertheless, Franco could benefit from Jay Heaps' guidance and might be a good project for the future.

New England could, of course, look elsewhere in the draft, but I would consider these players to be the top options for Jay Heaps and company to lean towards. The midfield is chock-full of talent and central defense is looking more solid with the addition of Jose Goncalves, so forwards and fullbacks would be the ideal targets. Either way, the combine is now in full swing and surely Heaps and his staff are watching many players very closely after assuring the media via conference call on January 9th that they've done their homework. Let's hope they get what they want come draft day.

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