Jan. 8, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It's becoming an annual trip for Bob Gray, Marshall's veteran men's soccer coach.
It's early January, so that means Gray is heading Thursday to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And although Gray is 61 and pointed toward his 20th season guiding the Thundering Herd, don't think for a minute that this is one of those "snowbird" deals.
Gray has been a fixture at the Major League Soccer Player Combine for more than a decade. This time, he adds to his duties and his history with the event just prior to the annual MLS SuperDraft.
Gray is one of only four NCAA coaches selected as a head coach for the Combine, which runs through Jan. 14. The 72 participating players will be split into four teams guided by Gray, Denver's Bobby Muuss, Scott Collins of Seattle Pacific and Chris Kelderman of Milwaukee.
"For me, it's a neat experience and it's an honor," said Gray, the dean of all Marshall coaches. "I've been involved with the event for a long time and actually started the event years ago, when it was called the Umbro Select before MLS had its own combine.
"It's developed into something kind of like any other pro combine, like the NFL people going to Mobile (Ala., for the Senior Bowl and Indianapolis for the NFL Combine). It's an opportunity for these players to be seen by coaches and scouts, and hopefully jumpstart their professional careers."
It's the first time Gray - he ranks fourth among active Division I men's coaches with 424 career wins - has coached at the Combine, where a year ago, ex-Herd goalkeeper Daniel Withrow impressed and was eventually drafted and stuck as a rookie with the Columbus Crew.
"I've never actually coached, so this will be different," Gray said, sitting in his office at MU's Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex. "I've been involved with the Combine 10-15 years, at one time as chairman of the selection committee to most recently helping them out with Division II, III and NAIA players.
"I'm the coordinator between pro coaches and players at the combine. If they want to see a kid at a different position, they come to me."
Gray said the 72 players include top NCAA seniors, "Adidas Generation" prospects who are "undergraduate kids coming out early," and youth internationals. The teams play matches Friday, Sunday and Tuesday.
The focus then moves from Florida to Philadelphia, where the 2014 MLS drafts will be held Jan. 16 at the national coaches' convention.
There also will be a personal side to the trip for Gray. His son, Matthew, who works in the DC United front office as a graphic designer, will also attend the Combine.
Gray said his involvement with the MLS Combine can pay dividends for Herd soccer, which has had past Combine participants in Withrow, keeper Taly Goode and forward Karim Boukhemis.
"It's something that we can tell recruits, that I have the connections that will hopefully help them get to the next level," Gray said. "We sell the university, and now we have this new place of our own (the Hoops Family Field at the Veterans Complex) and we'll have the Indoor Athletic Facility up and running this year.
"All that will make it a lot more enjoyable to recruit. And we talk about the Combine. All the young players who head to the college level should have aspirations to play at next level and highest level in this country is MLS."
Gray said soccer will continue to get a boost from not only the World Cup this year, but also the continuing expansion of MLS, which is adding teams in New York and Orlando is 2015 and has targeted Atlanta and Miami for future expansion.
In his own program, Gray wants to get back to the success the Herd had in 2012, when Withrow and a strong back line made the Herd (11-5-1) one of the top defensive teams in Division I.
In last season's debut in the Veterans Complex, Marshall (2-11-6) fielded the youngest club in Gray's 19 seasons guiding the Herd. And Conference USA -- after realignment -- was a tougher test in men's soccer. Gray said eight C-USA players will participate at this weekend's MLS Combine.
"It was our youngest team, and in hindsight, maybe we overscheduled a bit," Gray said, "but we look forward to the spring, our first spring in (the new soccer-centric facility). A lot of freshmen got to play quite a bit and that's only going to bode well for their future and ours.
I think from a coaching standpoint, every coach would like to have winning seasons every year, but sometimes when you fall down you get excited about wanting to get up and do better. For me it was disappointing, after the previous year we'd done quite well, led the nation in (goals against percentage).
"With this facility and the Indoor Facility, we're pretty excited needless to say, and we're hitting the recruiting trail hard and hopefully we find the right pieces to the puzzle to put us back where we want to be."
The Herd will begin preseason training and lifting when the spring semester starts next week. Gray said the program "is quite enthused" about the spring exhibition schedule, and not just because all of the games will be at the Veterans complex.
The spring opener is tentatively scheduled for March 8, with West Virginia heading to Huntington, for a 2 p.m. match. The Herd men's regular season - after home exhibitions with Bowling Green and Radford - will open Aug. 29 against Duquesne at home, followed two days later by a visit from Cleveland State.