Here's a minute-by-minute log of the first day of the Dynamo's player combine, which began Wednesday at the Carl Lewis Track & Field Complex.
We arrive slightly late and catch a ride from the locker room to Carl Lewis on the back of ‘The Beast,’ the big orange pseudo-golf cart. Assistant athletic trainer Shane Caron drives, while French midfielder Yedi Zahiri – who just arrived from the airport – rides shotgun. Most of the players arrived last night and came over together on a bus from a local hotel.
Carl Lewis is pretty much as we left it – football lines, holes in the soccer nets, etc. With Dominic Kinnear in North Carolina watching the ACC Tournament, Steve Ralston leads the group in jogging warmup laps. The familiar figure of Geoff Cameron strides in the middle of the group, he and Francisco Navas Cobo joining the hopefuls. Dynamo Academy 18-year-olds Chance Bergen, Jade George, and Diego Velazquez stick together during the laps.
While Tim Hanley takes Tyler Deric and Tally Hall to one sideline to begin their work, the field players split up into two groups of nine – including Ralston and assistant coach Wade Barrett – for small-sided passing. The bald heads of Zahiri, Houston native Nelson Akwari, and Montenegrin international Risto Lakic stand out from the far sideline.
Barrett takes the group into passing drills in a large square and starts breaking out his Spanish, asking, “¿Listos?” and calling, “Dos pelotas,” when a second ball is added. Ralston is holding player resumes in his hand while watching the drills, occasionally referring to one or another.
Dynamo athletic trainer Theron Enns stops by and says Gherland McDonald, a left-footed Costa Rican midfielder with braids, played for the Colorado Rapids under Fernando Clavijo while Enns worked there. Research shows the Rapids registered him as 'Yherland' ... weren't they the same team that got Peguero Jean-Philippe's name backward?
The players get a break following the passing drill, and Geoff Cameron uses the time to tease goalkeepers coach Tim Hanley about something. The remaining players get drinks and appear to get a feel for each other’s language skills. Barrett then calls them in to explain the next drill, using a mixture of English, Spanish, and hand signals. The players split into four teams of four and play 4 v. 4 games in 30-yard squares. After the first two-minute game, in which players are limited to three touches, players slap hands and exchange names.
Zahiri gets kicked in the chest and stays down briefly. It's already been a long day, remember.
The players now go into an 8 v. 8 game with goalkeepers, playing cross-field. “OK, 12 minutes -- doce minutos -- three-touch!” Barrett calls.
Orange - Tally Hall, Nelson Akwari, Pablo Salazar, Gherland McDonald, Brandon Poltronieri, Jhonatan da Silva, Pablo Brenes, Diego Velazquez, Jade George.
Blue - Tyler Deric, Geoff Cameron, Risto Lakic, Francisco Navas Cobo, Yordany Alvarez, Emmanuel Gaytan, Omar Gomez Galicia, Chance Bergen, Yedi Zahiri.
Within minutes, Yordany Alvarez – seemingly the most comfortable guest player based on his week with the Dynamo in October – has called for a pass from Navas Cobo, then pulled up with a, “Whoa, whoa,” when the cross goes behind him. Hall, meanwhile, dealing with two Pablos on the same team, informs Salazar that he will be known as ‘Escobar’ for the remainder of the session.
The orange team gets the first goal, with McDonald playing a long ball out of the back to Brenes – formerly of the MetroStars and Deportivo Saprissa – on the left flank. He keeps it in on the sideline, then whips a curving left-footed ball to the back post, where George arrives to smash it home on his first touch. The blue team responds quickly but can’t tie the game, as Hall dives at full stretch to save a shot from Navas Cobo.
The orange team gets a sloppy second goal when da Silva, a 21-year-old from Atletico Paranaense in Brazil, steals the ball at the back and easily slots it past Deric. The blue team responds quickly again and this time gets a goal, with Zahiri and Navas Cobo taking advantage of the lack of an offside rule, Navas Cobo scoring from the speedy Zahiri’s pass.
Halftime is called, and the players get drinks before switching teams. Usually the Dynamo keep the goalkeepers in the same goals to make things fair for each team, but with players still learning names, Barrett tells the goalkeepers to switch with their field players.
A light rain begins to fall as the second half begins. It’s comfortable for the players, but the various agents and media in attendance scramble to open umbrellas or seek cover for their equipment.
The orange team makes it 3-1 when Brenes creates space near the goal and blasts a left-footed shot that caroms off the post and right back to him. He quickly squares it to George, who finishes before Deric can adjust. Throughout the scrimmage, George, a lanky speedster from Langham Creek, shows good soccer instincts by trying to time his runs even though there is no offside rule.
Communication is clearly a challenge on Day 1, with a mix of English, Spanish, and Portuguese speakers in addition to Zahiri and Lakic. English seems to be the dominant language, probably because the goalkeepers speak it, although we do hear, “Atras,” meaning ‘back,’ and plenty of other Spanish phrases. Players also resort to clapping (Lakic) or just calling out for the ball with various sounds, universal language for, “I’m open!”
The players are told to go “all-in,” meaning they are no longer limited to a certain number of touches.
Barrett calls full-time and leads the players in a cool-down jog and stretching before dismissing them for the day.
The players leave the field in packs, with the Academy players leaving together, several in the large Costa Rican contingent leaving together, the two Mexicans together, and a few others on their own. Gomez, Velazquez, and Zahiri are stopped for interviews, the first two in Spanish and the latter in English, while Cameron and Ralston also have to answer questions.
The players are back in the locker room before heading back to the hotel. Still three more days to go, with head coach Dominic Kinnear arriving tomorrow.