ORLANDO, Fla. — Officials for Major League Soccer's 23 teams have converged on the land of Disney to search for potential gems and bargains at the 2018 MLS combine. While the general consensus is that this year's MLS draft is lighter on talent than in past years, the hunt is still very much on to unearth the kind of steals that can bolster a roster.
Teams need only to look to a year ago, when Atlanta United found Julian Gressel, who came into the 2017 MLS combine without a ton of fanfare. That year's combine also helped the Philadelphia Union identify a late-round draft-day steal in central defender Jack Elliott, who developed into a regular starter as a rookie.
This year's talent pool looks very different to past year's groups. For one, it has a more international feel than ever before, with players from England, Spain and Germany, as well as a trio of Ghanaian-born Generation Adidas signings, leading the way in a class where much of the top-end talent is foreign born.
There is also a different distribution of talent positionally. Fullback has long been a tough area to find quality via the draft, while central defenders have traditionally been available in abundance. That's not the case this year, with more and more players converting from attacking roles into attacking fullback roles, and with more of the country's top center backs finding their ways into MLS academies. It's no surprise that MLS teams have signed several center backs to homegrown deals this winter, which might explain why there could be a record low number of central defenders taken in the first round of this year's draft.
These are just some of the issues heading into the MLS combine, which will run from Saturday to Wednesday, ahead of the 2018 MLS draft in Philadelphia on Jan. 19. Here is a closer look at some of the key questions teams will be seeking answers to at the MLS combine:
WHO IS THE TOP PICK?
There is no Cyle Larin in the 2018 draft, a player nobody can pass on. If you quiz a half dozen MLS officials you might get a half dozen different responses on who they would take with the top pick.
LAFC currently holds the No. 1 selection and is believed to be leaning toward Akron defender Joao Moutinho. He and Michigan speedster Francis Atuahene are considered the most likely to go with the top pick, though a team coveting Stanford central defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce could be tempted to make an offer for the clear-cut best center-back prospect.
Will LAFC trade the first pick in the team's history? Let's not forget that Bob Bradley once dealt the first overall pick (in 2006 while at Chivas USA) and landed Sacha Kljestan and Jason Hernandez from the New York Red Bulls, who selected Marvell Wynne at No. 1. Bradley isn't the sentimental type, so if the right offer comes along, LAFC will take it.
WHERE ARE THE CENTER BACKS?
The draft has long been seen as a place where teams can find some good central defender options. Whether you talk about accomplished standouts like Omar Gonzalez and Chad Marshall, or later-round gems like Geoff Cameron and Elliott. The first round has seen center backs go regularly, with a minimum of four central defenders being taken in each of the past four drafts.
How many will go in 2018? We might only see one — Hilliard-Arce — if Moutinho is projected as a left back, which is the widely held belief. The challenge is going to be figuring out which of the rest of the central defender prospects is worth considering. Realistically speaking, there may not be another central defender taken besides Hilliard-Arce in the first round, or even in the first half of the second round.
One player who is surprising in his absence is Syracuse defender Kamal Miller, a left-footed central defender who impressed in 2016 but had a down year in 2017 along with his team. Miller is a Canadian international, and is actually taking part in in the Canadian national team's current camp, but MLS has not approached him about an offer, even after launching the Canadian Generation Adidas program last year. If Miller were in the draft, he would stand a very good chance of being a first-round pick, but without Miller, the wait for a central defender in the 2018 draft after Hilliard-Arce could be a long one.
WEIGHING THE INTERNATIONAL OPTIONS
International roster spots are a precious commodity in MLS, even more so now that the league has given teams the resources to hit the foreign player market even harder with boatloads of allocation money. Traditionally, foreign players passing through the college ranks might see their draft prospects hindered by their international status, but this year's draft talent pool is overflowing with foreign players, which suggests there may be changes on the horizon.
It isn't as simple as teams being able to secure green cards for foreign players more quickly, which in turns frees up more international player slots. There is some buzz in league circles that MLS could be considering expanding the number of foreign player spots, specifically for younger players, which would help teams cope with the reality that college soccer is increasingly being flooded with foreign talent.
Ultimately, teams want talented players, and as we saw with German-born Julian Gressel and New Zealand native Elliott, if they can come in as a rookie and become an immediate contributor —at a modest price tag to boot — then suddenly the international status doesn't matter as much.
Of course, the focus on international prospects can vary between teams. Some MLS teams are overflowing with international acquisitions, and can't afford to bring in foreign draft picks, while other teams that aren't as active in the foreign market have the flexibility to target foreign players in the draft more so than some other teams.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR TRADES
Though this year's draft may not be as stocked with top-end talent, teams that covet specific players have more resources than ever to get deals done, which should lead us to plenty of wheeling and dealing this week.
New York City FC made big waves in last year's draft by splashing the allocation cash to snag a pair of first-round picks, one which yielded promising winger Jonathan Lewis. We may not see teams be quite that aggressive with allocation money this time around, but the fact there are three teams holding multiple first-round picks bodes well for some maneuvering.
New England is in very good position to make moves. The Revolution hold the eighth and ninth picks in the draft, and they have the flexibility to go after some of the foreign talent available, and the allocation money to make deals work. If there is a team that's the leading candidate to deal its way into a top pick, it's Brad Friedel's squad.
Montreal has the best position, currently holding the fourth and seventh picks in the draft, but given the Impact's varying needs, they seem more likely to stay put and grab what should be two quality talents.
SIZING UP THE SMALL SCHOOL PROSPECTS
MLS scouts see their fair share of the big conference schools from the ACC, Big Ten and Pac 12, but for prospects from smaller schools and conferences, there isn't as much familiarity, which makes the combine a place they need to shine.
We have seen players like Tesho Akindele and Matt Polster catapult themselves up draft boards with good showings at the combine in past years, and this year's draft has some small school gems ready to follow that trajectory. Right back Tristan Blackmon (Pacific), forward Danny Musovsky (UNLV), and forward Albert Ruiz (Florida Gulf Coast) are just some of the small-school standouts who could play themselves into prime draft position with strong performances.