PHILADELPHIA — When the Los Angeles FC technical staff went to the 2018 MLS combine in Orlando this past week, the hope was that a player would emerge from the pack to make the expansion team's decision with the first pick in Friday's MLS SuperDraft an easy one.
If anything, the combine only made LAFC's decision more difficult, with sources telling Goal that Bob Bradley and his staff are far from any sort of consensus on who to select, or even if the pick should be retained or traded.
There is no Cyle Larin in the 2018 draft, a player who a consensus of teams would agree is the clear top choice. In fact, when more than a dozen MLS coaches and general managers were asked by Goal who they would take with the top pick, four different players received multiple votes, with two emerging as the leading candidates.
Akron defender Joao Moutinho and Michigan winger Francis Atuahene were the leading vote-getters in Goal's informal poll, while Wake Forest forward Jon Bakero and Stanford defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce also received some votes.
All four players have their strengths and weaknesses and they all wouldn't necessarily fit in with LAFC's plan to build its roster, which is still very much a work in progress as the team draws closer to its inaugural season. All but Hilliard-Arce would occupy an international player spot, which is problematic for an ambitious LAFC team that has already hit the international market hard for top-end talent, and still has some foreign acquisitions in the works.
The lone American in that group — Hilliard-Arce — is a center back, a position LAFC doesn't exactly need to fill after acquiring MLS standouts Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman.
That reality could lead LAFC to trade the top overall pick. which is something Bradley told Goal is a possibility. Whereas some past expansion teams have made a point to keep their first overall pick for symbolic purposes, there is no such sentimentality with LAFC.
Trading away a top overall pick is nothing new for Bradley, who dealt the first pick in the 2006 MLS draft, trading down and still landing Sacha Kljestan for Chivas USA. That trade worked like a charm for Bradley, and it is clear he wouldn't hesitate to pull off another trade if the right offer comes along.
So which player will go first in the 2018 MLS draft? Here is a look at the five leading candidates, and their chances of being the first name called:
The speedy Ghanaian impressed scouts at the MLS combine with his pace and ability to go at defenders. The end product wasn't always there, but he showed enough to leave many teams feeling like he was the biggest game-changing threat in the draft.
Why will he go first overall: LAFC could love the speed he can provide on the left wing.
Why he won't go first overall: There are questions about durability and his ability to combine with teammates. His international status doesn't help either.
The Sporting Lisbon academy product was outstanding at Akron, showing his class all season. He wowed scouts on the first day of the MLS combine as easily the most impressive player on the field, but a position switch to left back on day two — where he is projected to play as a pro — left teams unimpressed and questioning just where he can play in MLS.
Why will he go first overall: Moutinho is arguably the best pure soccer player in the group, from his touch, passing range and intelligence. Having just turned 20, Moutinho still has time to develop.
Why he won't go first overall: Moutinho doesn't have a clear-cut position. Scouts wonder if he's athletic enough to play left back, and many feel he is too small to be a central defender. Some teams project him as a deep-lying midfielder, but he hasn't really played that position. Moutinho's international status works against him, though as a 20-year-old, he's more enticing than other internationals.
The MAC Hermann Trophy winner erased any questions about whether his success was more a product of Wake Forest's overall talent by putting together the most impressive showing at the MLS combine. His movement, passing ability and excellent decision-making in attacking positions should lead to a smooth transition to the pro game.
Why will he go first overall: Bakero is the player the most teams feel could step in and play from day one. His skill would allow him to slip right into any lineup, no matter the quality around him. His relatively inexpensive price tag as 21-year-old attacking option with clear ability could entice LAFC to make him the pick, though it's a long shot.
Why he won't go first overall: Bakero plays a premium position as a forward, and would find it difficult to break into most starting lineups given the money spent on the position around the league. He is also on a senior contract, which means he will immediately count against the salary cap of whichever team takes him, unlike the Generation Adidas players available. He's also an international player, which will limit the number of teams that would consider trading up to take him.
No player in the draft boasts as impressive a college resume as the three-time NCAA champion center back, but scouts have real questions about his ability to make an easy transition to the pros given what many see as worrisome limitations. It is interesting to note that both critics and fans of his game both call him an old-school MLS center back. The skeptics use the term to point out that he's not the type of modern-day central defender teams want to have, equally capable of defending and passing. The scouts who like him use the "old-school" term to praise his hard-nosed and simple approach, which could work well on certain teams.
Why will he go first overall: Tough, strong and dominant in the air, Hilliard-Arce won't be overpowered by big strikers. He is the most pro-ready American in the draft.
Why he won't go first overall: There are serious questions about his technical ability, and limited passing range. As good as his college resume is, many teams feel he was protected in Stanford's system, and will be exposed on the next level when he doesn't have the cover of Stanford's defensive-minded setup.
The only American player in the Generation Adidas class, Toye is big forward with some impressive starting points, but still needs time to develop. His size, mobility and dominance as an aerial threat have some scouts drooling at the potential. The 6-foot-3 former Red Bulls academy product isn't just a tall player, he's also very athletic, having played a variety of sports growing up. He's the biggest long-shot on this list to be the top overall pick — LAFC are very unlikely to consider him — but there are some teams who like Toye enough to trade up to the top spot for him.
Why will he go first overall: Teams love the potential and as the only American teenager in the draft, Toye is the ideal long-term project for a team willing to put the time in. New England wants him, and has two first-round picks to make a deal happen.
Why he won't go first overall: He's still very raw, and not all teams are convinced he will develop into an effective pro.