Ventura County Fusion Complete First of Three Pro Combines
More than 50 pro soccer hopefuls competed in front of coaches from five men’s professional teams
The Ventura County Fusion held the first of three professional combines November 27 -28 at River Ridge Soccer Complex in Oxnard, giving players from Ventura county and nationwide the opportunity to show their stuff in front of representatives from five professional soccer clubs.
“Over the years, this has been a very successful combine,” said Fusion owner Ranbir Shergill. “We always try to bring top-level clubs, decision-makers, people that can ultimately get players the opportunity that they’re looking for.”
Soccer combines are typically held by clubs looking to add players to their rosters, or sports agencies looking to find deals for their clients. Hopefuls pay for the opportunity to showcase their talents for coaches with the goal of signing a professional contract. Fusion combines typically attract between 50 and 60 players and are held during the November to January window when college players home on winter break, can attend. The Fusion coaching staff facilitates the event, works with players, provides coaches with information about the participants and serves as a liaison between the coaches and players. The goal is for players to further their careers and for coaches to find players who can help their team win.
Fusion CEO and Director of Soccer Adam Smith explained it to the participants this way: “There are three ways this can go. One, this may not be an event where you’re able to get picked up. Two, one of the coaches here might want to sign someone straight away, in which case we’ll connect them with your representative, your coach, or directly with you. The last option, which is the most probable one, is that the coaches will give us a list of names of players that they would like to invite into pre-season training camp with their team or to an event they might be hosting themselves. If you do get an opportunity and it works for you, I would grab it with both hands.”
The event included a variety of tactical and technical activities designed to test players ability and acumen for the game. Fusion staff divided the players into four teams that played a series of 60 and 30-minute games. Team reps watched from the sidelines taking notes on players that might be able to help their teams. The action was intense and the level of play, especially on the second day of the combine, after players had gotten to know each other a bit, was uniformly high.
“This is the first Fusion combine that I have attended,” said Hartford Athletic Assistant Coach and Technical Director Luis Silva. “We have had different representatives attend in the past, and we actually signed three players for the 2020 season. One player, Alex Lara is still with us this season and has played almost 30 professional games for us.”
Before joining Hartford Athletic, Lara, who is from Azusa, played three seasons at Cal State Northridge and represented the Fusion during the 2019 season. He is one of more than 100 players who have been signed from the combine by professional teams over the 14 years the event has been held.
In addition to Silva, coaches from Oakland Roots (USL Championship), Monterey Bay F.C. (USL Championship), Fuego FC (USL League One) and California United Strikers FC (NISA) were on hand. They were uniformly impressed by the level of talent on display at this year’s first event.
“It was a good level, especially the second day,” said Silva. “The players were more comfortable with each other and even with themselves, so the quality of the game flowed a little bit bitter, which allowed us to see how they would react among players who are of the same level and against the types of players who would be challenging them on our side. We saw a couple of players who we are thinking of inviting to our combine.”
Frank Yallop, Head Coach of Monterrey Bay FC, which will be making its USL Championship debut in May, is in the unique position of having to fill an entire roster before the season begins. Yallop is one of the deans of North American soccer. He played in both the English Premier League and MLS and then spent 13 years as a manager in MLS for the San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy, and Chicago Fire. He also coached the Canadian men’s national team for three years. He and Smith worked together at USL Championship side Fresno FC and the two remain close friends.
“As all new teams go,” Yallop explained, “I’ve just got to gather all my thoughts. I’m talking to players and agents right now. I’ve got a few contracts lined up. In the next two or three weeks, I expect to sign a few players. It’s a slow process.”
Like Silva, Yallop was impressed by the level of talent and figured there were players in attendance who might be able to help his team.
“We’re just looking for players to be able to play at our level,” said Yallop. “There are players here that (have played) in (USL) League 2, League 1, and the Championship. There are always players that slip through the cracks, especially with the crazy COVID year we’ve had. If they were out of contract, they didn’t get a chance to trial at clubs because nobody could travel. So, they were kind of stuck. Whether they get picked here or not, they have the potential of making a squad. A lot of these guys have impressed.”
The combine featured a combination of local club hopefuls, college and ex-college players, and professionals currently out of contract. Smith reached out to his good friend Gareth Smith, head men’s soccer coach at Drake University, who sent a contingent of players including goalkeeper Jared Brown and leading scorer Juan Luis. Luis, a senior who graduates in December and hopes to become a professional, impressed in the midfield, scoring several goals, and covering large chunks of ground throughout the weekend. This combine is the fourth that he’s attended, and he was complimentary of the level of play both compared to what he faced in college and to what he’s seen at the other combines.
“It was very competitive,” says Luis, a native of Haiti who currently lives in Minnesota. “There were a lot of great guys. Great talents. We didn’t know a lot of the players, but we were trying to play together. We kept the ball for the most part. It was not like boot soccer all the time.”
This was the first combine for ex-Shalke 04 player Hanif Wright, who competed locally in both the Los Angeles Galaxy’s youth set up and at valley club Real So Cal (now LAFC So Cal Youth). Wright came to the combine at the suggestion of his agent, hoping for a chance to impress the pro scouts, gain a contract and at the very least play some good soccer against quality players.
“Being able to play on the field with other guys instead of just being with a trainer is big, and you can’t take it for granted, honestly,” Wright explained. “There were a couple of really good guys out here. They were very good technically and they seem like they could play at the highest level if they keep training. The player quality is there. I can definitely see it.”
Joseph Wheelwright, a goalie who played youth soccer for Smith at the Portland Timbers Academy was invited to the combine by Smith. Wheelwright played five years at Utah Valley University in Orem Utah, the last under U.S. National team legend Kyle Beckerman. In addition to participating in games, he and the other half dozen or so goalies got to train with Fusion goalie coach Javit Carmona.
“I’m at this combine aspiring to pursue my goal of playing professional soccer,” Wheelwright explained. “I’m getting out in front of professional coaches, scouts and agents and continuing to push forward on the path of playing the game I love.”
Forward Aodhan O’Hara, another attendee with D1 experience, scored several goals and displayed good touch and a nose for the ball. O’Hara, who hails from Barrie, Ontario, played D1 ball for four years at the University of Alabama Birmingham where he scored nine goals. Given an extra year by the NCAA due to the COVID pandemic, O’Hara transferred to CSU Bakersfield and played an additional season, starting 17 games and leading the team in goals (5) and points (12). O’Hara’s next stop is the United Kingdom where he’ll play games against Premier and Championship league under-23 teams, then more combines.
At the conclusion of the combine, the players gathered their gear, hopeful that they had performed well enough to draw interest from one of the pro coaches. Shergill thanked them for their participation and offered some final words of encouragement.
“Keep working hard. All you need is one person to say yes. I’ve seen a coach sign a player in one day. I’ve seen four players from this combine go on to become international players. Keep following your dreams.”
The second Fusion combine will be held December 18 and 19 at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. For more information and to register, visit https://www.vcfusion.com/pro-combine.