CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati will have its pick of players when the clock officially starts at the Major League Soccer SuperDraft, but the league’s newest expansion team can only hope it finds a diamond in the rough.
The first two rounds of the annual MLS SuperDraft will take place Friday in Chicago, and FCC will have the top selection as a new team joining the league.
Some promising prospects have emerged from this year’s draft class, and teams have gotten a closer look through the MLS Combine over the past week in Orlando. However, recent history shows a No. 1 overall pick doesn’t usually translate into a star player.
Cincinnati will make its first selection with both present and future in mind.
“Homegrown players really have altered the guys that are available for the draft, and I think that's just the natural progression of the game in our country, is developing our own players and signing them early to professional contracts, so that's just taken away probably the depth in terms of player quality,” said FC Cincinnati technical director Luke Sassano, who was a third-round pick by the New York Red Bulls in 2008 when there were just 14 teams. “You're just dealing with a different kind of player because the league has evolved."
Only one of the last four No. 1 picks remains with the team that selected him: Minnesota United has stuck by its top 2017 draft pick despite Abu Danladi’s struggles his sophomore season.
Striker Cyle Larin, who was the No. 1 pick by Orlando City in 2015, left for Turkey after three seasons; Chicago Fire traded 2016 top pick Jack Harrison and two other draftees three days later; and Los Angeles FC traded No. 1 pick João Moutinho to Orlando last month after playing him sporadically as a rookie.
That’s not to say the draft pool is void of potential impact players, but those considered truly elite simply don’t have to go through that route as often.
Additionally, teams place more emphasis on developing players through academies and acquiring talent through other means with the help of allocation money, which was first introduced in 2015.
“When you look at it, MLS has definitely grown over the past couple of years, but there are still talented players that come through the college system that aren't homegrown players, that maybe are late developers in certain capacities," Sassano said. "We're definitely looking at it as trying to find good young pieces that potentially could help us now, but more likely a little bit later down the line.
“It's also about finding unique guys that maybe have been in certain circumstances that they are available at this moment, and it goes back to the roster build, finding pieces that make sense not just for now but for the future.”
Orlando City's Larin was not a Lebron James-like prospect coming into the 2015 draft but took MLS by storm with a historic rookie season, setting an all-time record for a rookie with 17 goals and earning the AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year award. When he moved on last year, Orlando collected a $2.2 million transfer fee.
Although Chicago immediately traded away three of its draft picks in 2016, when there were no expansion clubs joining the league, Harrison, at No. 1, was considered the second best player in MLS his rookie year with New York City FC. He signed with Manchester City in 2018.
Sassano indicated trades could be possible for FC Cincinnati as well.
“We've been fortunate to be a new club, and with that comes the No. 1 pick, and that's also an asset as we are building our roster,” Sassano said. “… It means an incredible moment for the franchise, a special moment, but at the same time we are not afraid to do something that is going to improve our roster and our position going forward."
FCC has four picks to make over the two rounds Friday, thanks to two trades for extra picks (No. 1, 16, 25 and 30), and Cincinnati will do its best to predict a prospect’s future potential while also considering the roster’s greatest needs.
Sassano said Cincinnati could make moves up or down in the draft order with its second and third selections.
“If we feel we find a player that has interesting upside ... we are happy to do what it takes, whether it's moving to get another first-round pick or whether that's moving to not have the three picks we have at the moment,” Sassano said. “We are evaluating every option, but the good thing is we've spent the last four months really working on this moment. (We've been) doing our homework not just for the past three or four months but as the collegiate season got started ... to make sure when we did come to the Combine we knew the players.”
The Combine has been helpful for player interviews and allowing the staff to evaluate players up close together in a challenging environment for the participants — most of whom haven’t played 11-on-11 soccer in at least a month. Players were sorted into teams with guys they probably never played with before for matches Saturday and Wednesday.
Sassano said the FC Cincinnati staff has “a pretty strong feeling” who they want to take first. They'll bring with them to Chicago a narrowed-down list of players they like.
A safe assumption is the club will be picking an attacking player at No. 1 to fit the biggest need that remains in the roster-building process. The top three players on mock draft boards are VCU winger/attacking midfielder Siad Haji, UCLA attacking midfielder Frankie Amaya and Syracuse forward Tajon Buchanan. All are Generation Adidas players and thus won’t count against the team’s salary cap.
Haji is widely considered the most talented player in the draft despite not making the United States U-20 national team, which did take Amaya. It’s likely between those two individuals for FC Cincinnati.
“At the end of the day, we want to come out winning Year 1,” Sassano said. “We don't just want to be a team that just builds in project mode. We've tried to do that with some of the roster moves we've made already, trying to solidify through the spine and through the back to be a team that can come out from Day 1 and compete.
"So, with that pick, we might be more willing to bring in a young player that can be a project than bringing in a player that's a little more polished.”