In a sense, the NFL is the picture of socialized order in sports. Thirty-two teams with equal amounts to spend, pre-determined periods to acquire players and a draft to evenly distribute incoming talent.
With the Riverhounds, Bob Lilley doesn't get that sort of big-league luxury.
The second-year Hounds coach has been casting a wide net, starting essentially days after last season ended, as he works to piece together another competitive USL Championship outfit while battling a global soccer market and the constraints caused by MLS' odd player acquisition rules that stall some domestic players from hitting the market.
Lilley has more than 20 years of head coaching experience to his name, however, and he has a distinct plan for how he wants to operate. That included traveling to Orlando, Fla. last weekend for the early days of the MLS Combine, where he got a chance to sit down and really watch some of the top graduating college players — a difficult thing to do now that the USL season overlaps deep into October and the NCAA season.
"By the time we're done, there's not much of the college season left. It's tough with scouting, because we don't have a complete scouting network through our system, and I find it's always better to see them play in person, anyway," Lilley told DKPittsburghSports.com.
The coach's four-day stay at the combine included a day of meeting with other USL coaches, but he logged a full day of games to observe Jan. 5 and another session with all the players in training Jan. 7.
The MLS SuperDraft, which will be held Friday in Chicago, is a four-round affair that tends to play out more haphazardly than drafts in other North American leagues. Teams often pass on later-round selections for financial or roster-shaping reasons — it happened 11 times in the 2018 draft — making it hard to gauge exactly who will be taken beyond the first round or two.
"You're trying to get a broad sense of all the players, because a number of them will get drafted, but some won't," Lilley said. "I try to evaluate every player, and it's hard in one game. You might see a good performance by one guy or see a guy who struggled but is really a better player. Obviously, there were players I loved, but a lot of them were from ACC schools, Indiana, Akron — they're getting an MLS contract this year."
A prime example what can happen, when things go right, is the case last year of Thomas Vancaeyezeele. The French-born defender was the NCAA Division II Player of the Year at Charleston (W.Va.) and earned an invitation to the MLS Combine, which is where Lilley first sat down to evaluate him.
Vancaeyezeele went undrafted in MLS and returned to West Virginia to continue training at Charleston. The Hounds opened their camp, and it wasn't until a few weeks in — after Lilley already had sent home a number of players invited on trial — that Vancaeyezeele was brought in to work with the Hounds.
In the span of a month, Vancaeyezeele went from free agent not in a camp to starting opening day for the Hounds in Nashville, and the first-year pro turned out to be one of the Hounds' most versatile and valuable players, logging a team-record 3,029 minutes in league matches and having his contract option picked up for 2019.
Sometimes the scouting can play out as a long game, as was the case with now-former Hounds midfielder Joe Holland, who signed earlier this offseason with the expansion Birmingham Legion.
Holland was the 10th overall pick out of Hofstra in 2017 by the Houston Dynamo, and he spent his first pro season under contract in MLS. Once he was not re-signed at the end of the year, Lilley knew Holland was a player he would like to get a look at up close, so he offered Holland a spot in camp and, eventually, a contract.
"Seeing them a day or two (at the combine) is a lot different than seeing them for a week or two with your own guys. The odds of them developing and being successful is a lot higher if you're making educated decisions," Lilley said. "It can be tough, because sometimes you'll talk to the agent and say you want to bring his guy in, and he'll say there's an offer already on the table to sign elsewhere. Then there's decisions to be made, so it's not easy to get all the guys you want into camp."
Lilley has made it clear, both in words and actions, that he's not trying to load up on young players. The Hounds' signings of defender Ryan James and striker Steevan Dos Santos, both of whom played for Lilley at one point in Rochester, continue to establish a core of players proven at the USL level.
More signings along those lines are to be expected, but they might not come until after the Hounds officially open camp Feb. 4.
A perfect example of that was last year's signing late in camp of defender Hugh Roberts, which turned out to be a critical addition early in the season when fellow center back Joe Greenspan went down with an injury. Roberts, who was an all-USL player in 2016 with Richmond, went unsigned well into the 2018 preseason, and Lilley said there were other players the Hounds were looking at first for the same position.
As the regular season neared and the Hounds trimmed their camp roster, Lilley and Roberts worked out a deal at a price more favorable to the Hounds than they would have paid at the start of camp — USL contract financial details are not made public. The deal turned out to be a good one for both the Hounds and Roberts, who signed this week as free agent with the Charlotte Independence after a solid year in Pittsburgh.
"The Hugh Roberts signing turned out to be very good for us, but it doesn't happen if we didn't leave ourselves a little flexibility going into camp and even going into the season," Lilley said. "Some guys will get drafted or go into MLS training camp and get released. You might like certain players, but they may or may not be available until the end of February. But they may be available, and you need that flexibility."
Lilley didn't want to tip his hand before the MLS draft and didn't speak about any particular young players he might have his eye on, should they go undrafted, but he said one off-the-radar move already is in the works.
"We're working on a contract now, and planning, I think, to announce it Monday. We had a kid in during tryouts (in December) who did very well," Lilley said. "I went to the MLS Combine, looked at other players in his position, and I don't know that anything any of them were doing was something this player can't give us. We planned to sign him before this week, but that just reinforced that this was a guy we liked, and he was enough below the surface that no one made a play for him and he didn't get into the MLS Combine."
Considering the success the Hounds have had in recent years finding contributors such as Rob Vincent, Lebo Moloto and Vancaeyezeele — all of whom played in college below the NCAA Division I — the club will continue to scour those ranks and not limit themselves geographically. That includes Lilley assistants Dan Visser and Hunter Gilstrap traveling to an event this weekend at Dominican University in San Rafael, Calif., just north of San Francisco, where coaches from MLS down to the fourth-tier NPSL will be scouting another batch of graduating college players.
With three weeks until camp, it seems the only rule Lilley's current scouting entails is that he's not ruling anybody out. Whether it's adding a 29-year-old Cape Verdean striker like Dos Santos or a young player who could be this year's Vancaeyezeele for the Hounds, roster flexibility is the name of the game entering Lilley's second camp in Pittsburgh.
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