Aspiring pro soccer players chase their dream at Midwest combine in Brighton

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

Brighton — Blake Barribeau of Brighton likely will be answering his phone on the first ring, if not sooner, in the coming few weeks.

He’s not trying to win a prize in a radio station contest or waiting to hear from a long lost love. The compact 5-foot-10 left back who spent the last three years playing soccer for Palm Beach Atlantic University is anxiously awaiting a call from a potential employer who could fulfill his dream of becoming a pro.

Defender Blake Barribeau

Barribeau was one of 74 hopefuls who auditioned for scouts representing three levels of U.S. pro soccer as well as the international clubs Thursday and Friday during the Midwest Pro Combine at the Legacy Center Sports Complex in Brighton.

“To be honest, I felt less pressure today than I did during my college season,” said Barribeau, who started his collegiate career at Oakland University before transferring. “It was more or less just showing up and performing.

“It was just giving our best for ourselves and for the right team, and the opportunity will be present itself, as it should.”

The Midwest Pro Combine is in its fourth year. The two-day event took on added significance since MLS is doing away with its combine ahead of its SuperDraft on Jan. 9.

Instead, the country’s top pro league held an informal player evaluation during the NCAA College Cup earlier this month.

Organizer Eric Rudland surmises the lack of an MLS combine led to a surge of USL Championship scouts attending the Brighton event. Representatives from 11 USL Championship teams joined scouts from the MLS' Portland Timbers, Chicago Fire, New York City FC and Sporting KC.

About 180 aspiring pros applied to take part in the Midwest Pro Combine, but less than half were accepted. Rudland and his staff chose candidates based on match footage, playing history, references, age and whether they would qualify as domestic or import players.

While a bulk were NCAA Division I products, players also came from DII, DIII and NAIA schools.

“If you look at how big the U.S. is, there are players everywhere and a lot of them do fall through the cracks because they haven’t gained exposure through their college season or through their summer season,” said Rudland, who also coaches AFC Ann Arbor, which is moving to USL League Two from the National Premier Soccer League this season. “We vet every player the same, whether they be a Division 3 or an NAIA guy who applies.”

Colorado Rapids defender Lalas Abubakar, who played on the 2016 Premier Development League national championship Michigan Bucks, attended the first Midwest Pro Combine four years ago. The Ghana native was the fifth pick overall by the Columbus Crew in the 2017 SuperDraft.

Plymouth’s Ken Krolicki, who starred at Michigan State, was selected 53rd overall by the Montreal Impact in the 2018 SuperDraft attended the 2018 Midwest combine.

About 19 participants from last year’s event signed with pro teams, including former AFC Ann Arbor goalkeeper Mike Novotny, who landed with USL Championship side Hartford Athletic.

Forward Azaad Liadi, who played for AFC Ann Arbor in 2019,  will be suiting up for USL 1's South Georgia Tormenta this season.

Forward Azaad Liadi of Sterling Heights has his sights on playing in the second-tier USL Championship. The Vardar product finished his senior season at Georgia Southern after playing three years at Saginaw Valley State where he tallied 11 goals in 56 matches. He had three goals and an assist in 16 matches with Georgia Southern this season.

“I feel I could do well at that level,” said Liadi, who attended Sterling Heights Henry Ford High where he ran also ran track and played basketball.

Liadi has been in contact with USL League One’s South Georgia Tormenta FC. The gulf in pay of playing third division — where in some cases players only earn enough to pay for housing and food — makes playing in USL Championship a better option.

“It’s not enough to live off of,” he said about playing third-tier pro soccer.

Liadi, who played his summer soccer with AFC Ann Arbor in 2018 and USL 2 Cincinnati Dutch Lions this year, sought to impress scouts with his speed and ability to break down opposing defenders at the combine.

“You try not to think about it as much, just play within yourself and within your team,” he said, “because obviously when you play for someone else, you’ll show better anyway. If you show up and just play for yourself, it’s not going to look as good.”

American players are increasingly featuring on European rosters, which is why international scouts were also in Brighton.

Capelli Sport U.S., which is the combine's apparel sponsor, owns German third-division club MSV Duisburg and Danish first division’s HB Koge among other teams. Denmark is open to U.S. players since it is less restrictive on imports, said Juan Santamaria, Capelli U.S. sporting manager.

“One of the things we have here with HB Koge is that they are very open-minded, especially with American players,” Santamaria said. “America players are a very interesting market there.

“We’re looking for players who understand the game, who know what to do without the ball. It’s really important. … Players spend so much time without the ball. What are they doing? Are they passive defensively? Once they give up the ball are they tracking back? Are they cutting off the penetrating pass? Those are really important things in Denmark.”

Defender Sam Biek

Defender Sam Biek, who is from Marburg, Germany, doesn’t want to play in Europe just yet. He’d prefer to stay and forge a professional soccer career here.

“That is my focus and any chance I could get an MLS job would be incredible,” said Biek, who finished this season playing with Western Michigan as a graduate student after a career at Bethel University. “Other than that I hope to find a USL Championship team.”

Biek played in two matches during the combine and was pleasesd with his performance. He met other players, coaches and scouts. He doesn’t have an agent and hadn’t received any solid offers yet.

“It’s pretty much a waiting game because it’s pretty much who’s calling by the end of preseason,” he said.

Twitter: @larryo1961