The Cardenas family home in Coachella, Calif. was bustling on MLS draft day. Amidst the excitement, family and friends buzzed around Enrique, the diminutive UC Irvine senior attacking midfielder who’d led the Anteaters into the third round of the NCAA tournament in December. There was even a cameraman sent by Chevrolet, filming a possible spot for the World Cup in conjunction with their partnership with Manchester United.
Cardenas hadn’t thrown all his hope into the draft, but after becoming one of the best college players in the country as a senior, most everybody expected Cardenas to fall somewhere in the draft's four rounds. In particular, the L.A. Galaxy, Chivas USA and Sporting KC had all offered positive feedback, and Cardenas figured if he went in the opening two rounds, that’s where he’d go.
He was confident except for one nagging doubt; the combine. He’d played three games for scouts and team execs in Florida the previous week and was worried his subpar showing irrevocably altered his previous four years of work. There was a caveat to that process - in each of the first two games he played in Fort Lauderdale, he’d been deployed as a central defensive midfielder. He’d never played that position before. He only played in his natural spot in the attacking midfield for a half and showed well, but it was the last half of soccer he played in Florida, and by then he felt the damage had been done.
Back in Coachella, Cardenas was still optimistic that his body of work over the years would trump a slow week spent mostly out of position. But as the first round came to a close, Cardenas’ hopes began to sink. Thirteen of the 19 first-round picks were defenders, keepers or holding midfielders. There were 13 more taken in the second round, and Cardenas’ name was still on the board.
“I was certain I was going to get picked,” Cardenas said. “Going into the first two rounds I was skeptical I would get picked there. But I thought it’d happen in the third round. Picks kept coming in and I was kind of confused.”
After waiting a fretful week for the draft to finish its final two rounds, the third and fourth rounds followed a similar pattern. Nothing. After all the anticipation, Cardenas wasn’t drafted.
It took a while to set in, and confusion eventually led to questions. Was it the combine? Perhaps his 5-foot-6 frame? His MLS scouting report mentioned plenty about his technical ability and low center of gravity in the attack, but it also questioned his defensive ability and the fact that he won’t win many headers. Of the first 38 picks, 26 were defenders, keepers or holding midfielders. Perhaps his arrival was simply a matter of bad timing?
Still, Cardenas couldn’t help but feel overlooked, and much of it landed on the shoulders of the combine.
“These teams doing these scouting reports, they questioned my ability to hold defenders off,” Cardenas said. “If you actually watch my game, that’s something I do better than most in college soccer. That’s why I keep the ball, because I can hold players off. At the end of the day I feel like they pay too much attention to the size, the physical attributes. We all know that. That’s American soccer. At the combine they measure your vertical, they measure how fast you run, how quick you are. But what test can they give you for your soccer IQ or your technical ability? Nothing. This isn’t an NFL combine. I just think that’s ludicrous.”
Cardenas’ agent canvassed league teams with calls after the draft, asking if they’d be interested in taking Cardenas on for a trial. None bit. It became obvious that if Cardenas was to start a professional career, MLS wasn't the place. At least not yet.
“People just need to do their homework more I think,” Cardenas said. “No team wants me in their training camp. My agent reached out and they all said they’re not interested. That’s fine too, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to take someone who’s proven themselves, even if it’s for a week.”
While he didn't agree with the reasoning, the situation made a kind of sense to George Kuntz, Cardenas’ head coach for four years at UC Irvine. As Kuntz told Cardenas in a text conversation last week, the league doesn't have a history of taking gambles on smaller players, technically inclined though they may be. And this year's draft was especially husky.
“It's unfortunate, but what ends up happening is that a lot of MLS coaches are looking for defenders, which is number one,” Kuntz said. “Number two, they're really concerned about picking up smaller players. Unfortunately for him, they don't take enough chances on special players, on guys that are difference-makers. If he hadn't have gone (to the combine) it might have been better for him because it would've been based on his season."
Kuntz, who departed for the same position with Cal State Fullerton this offseason, was speaking from the NASL Combine, which Cardenas opted to attend to put himself in front of more scouting eyes. For Kuntz, seeing the broader picture offered him perspective on not just Cardenas but players like him.
"It's a shame because we don't give enough chances to those smaller players," Kuntz said. "I'm looking at guys here that have played in MLS that have fallen out. It's just the way it's structured in MLS where you tend to go for the big, the athletic type guys, and some of those special players are falling by the wayside. You can see it even in our style of play in the United States. It's part of what we've produced in college and club."
Part of Cardenas’ surprise circled around his familiarity with MLS clubs and the league itself. The summer before his senior year, Cardenas’ UC Irvine squad scrimmaged the Chivas USA reserves. That day, Chivas USA’s lineup featured MLS players like Gabriel Farfan and Tristan Bowan, and Cardenas showed well enough that Chivas USA asked him to play with the team’s reserves the following Monday. Cardenas couldn’t commit due to his college duties, but it was a sign that he’d been marked on at least one MLS radar.
For Cardenas, there’s a bigger picture at play than simply his own MLS omission, and former Creighton midfielder Jose Gomez is part of the puzzle. Cardenas and Gomez’s careers shadowed one another through the youth ranks, and Gomez became one of the nation’s best attacking No. 10’s for the Bluejays through his senior year in 2012. Like Cardenas, Gomez is a creative attacking midfielder who lacks obvious pace and size. Gomez, a Hermann Trophy finalist in 2012, wasn't taken until the second round of the now-extinct MLS Supplemental Draft in 2013, and he's currently out of the top flight.
“They don’t give players like us an opportunity,” Cardenas said. “We don’t have a chance to thrive in the system. There’s no opportunity here. It’s a different thing if I got invited to training camp and I didn’t do well. Even at the combine, I know I didn’t stand out completely, but if I had the same combine and I was six-feet tall, I guarantee I would have been taken in the first two rounds.”
Cardenas has options, and Europe appears to be one. His agent is probing for interest, and there’s been a fair amount of pushback from Sweden in particular. Mexico is another. Both of Cardenas’ parents are from Mexico, and he was offered a contract with Pachuca he didn’t take when he was 14. Cardenas says the road south is open as well.
But he ultimately hoped it wouldn’t come to that. The technical midfielder is frustrated by what he sees as MLS’ propensity to stock its ranks with attacking talent from outside instead of taking more risks on smaller players on its own shores. Now, he’s on to new ventures.
“We’re just going to keep bringing creative players from abroad and players born in the U.S aren’t going to succeed,” Cardenas said. “There’s something wrong with the system. There’s definitely a flaw. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but for me, to not get invited to training camp after what I’ve done, that’s just foolish.”