The Major League Soccer draft, as an event, has seen its importance waning in a league where the level of play is improving exponentially as teams have more money to spend on the transfer market. College players are finding it tougher to come into the league and make an impact, as we saw in 2018, when the number of draft picks who made significant contributions could be counted on one hand.
That trend isn't stopping the newest team in MLS from diving into its first MLS draft headfirst, with FC Cincinnati heading into Friday holding the first overall selection and three of the top 16 picks after completing a pair of big trades on Wednesday.
Cincinnati now has 10 picks in the draft, with six in the top 30. That's a heavy load in a draft where there are very few prospects who would be considered likely year-one contributors, but Cincinnati is putting itself in position to control the draft and boost its chance of finding players capable of helping form the nucleus of Major League Soccer's newest team.
"We had a pretty thorough scouting network this past fall so we felt pretty comfortable with what we've seen in terms of the talent available," FC Cincinnati technical director Luke Sassano told Goal. "Most of the guys (at the MLS Combine) have lined up where we thought they would be. There is talent in the draft and we feel good about being able to bring in some players to compete for places."
Cincinnati completed a blockbuster deal with Los Angeles FC that saw the expansion team receive $175,000 in allocation money and the 16th overall pick in Friday's draft in exchange for FC Cincinnati's allocation order spot in 2020 or 2021 (another part of the deal was Cincinnati avoiding the selection of LAFC players in last month's MLS expansion draft).
The more surprising deal completed by Cincinnati saw Cincy ship $150,000 in general allocation money to the Philadelphia Union in exchange for all five of the Union's draft picks, led by the 13th overall pick.
FC Cincinnati is slated to kick things off at Friday's MLS draft in Chicago by making the first selection in team history. U.S. Under-20 midfielder Frankie Amaya and Virginia Commonwealth midfielder Siad Haji are the leading candidates to be selected. Traditionally, expansion teams have held on to their first draft selections, but Cincinnati isn't ruling out dealing the pick and has already received several inquiries about the top selection.
"You just have to listen to things," Sassano said. "I think we're very happy with the number one pick. It's exciting for the franchise, but we're also open to any conversations that come our way."
Amaya is considered the most valuable prospect in the draft after having impressed with the U.S. Under-20 national team during its run to the Concacaf Championship title in November. Amaya started in the U.S. team's 2-0 win against Mexico, showing the kind of two-way ability in central midfield that should bode well for his potential as a pro.
"He has excellent control of the ball under any circumstance and he has a good change of pace to get away from defenders and then can make a good pass with good timing," U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos told Goal. "He makes a really good effort defensively too and I don't think people give him enough credit for that. I think he has all the qualities to be a great player."
The soft-spoken Amaya wound up skipping the recent MLS combine to take part in the U.S. Under-20 national team's current training camp in Florida and played in a friendly on Tuesday against the U.S. U-19 team. The match was attended by members of FC Cincinnati's technical staff, who met with Amaya after the match.
Amaya took the short ride from the Florida Gulf Coast to Orlando to meet with officials from other MLS teams, but skipped playing in the final set of matches at the MLS combine on Wednesday.
When asked why he thinks he should be the first player taken in Friday's draft, the UCLA product pointed to his work ethic and versatility.
"You should take me because I can play multiple positions and I'll always give 100 percent. You'll always see my work rate and doing even more," Amaya told Goal. "Especially now that I'll be on a higher level. I'll be in a professional environment. I'll definitely get better, and I'll push myself even more. I'm a two-way player, I can play defense and offense and that helps me a lot."
Haji did take part in the MLS combine and was impressive, showing excellent vision and an ability to keep possession that was reminiscent of Atlanta United standout Darlington Nagbe. Haji believes his unique skill set should be what sets him apart when it's time for the first pick to be made on Friday.
"I would say I bring something different to the table, in terms of vision and being able to be a playmaker and just have that something different that most teams want," Haji told Goal. "There's a lot of great players here that have talent, whether it's speed or vision or finishing, but I think I just bring something a little bit different."
A big question surrounding Haji is where he will fit best positionally on the pro level. He has the characteristics of a central midfielder, but given the fact most teams employ high-priced international talent in the attacking midfield role, a wide position looks more likely to be where Haji winds up, which is fine with him.
"What feels like home for me would be right wing," Haji said. "I understand my duties defensively, and also just attacking wise."
Amaya and Haji are very likely to be the first two players chosen in Friday's draft, but that will be just the beginning of what is shaping up to be a busy day for FC Cincinnati, and a draft that will be more action packed than most.