ORLANDO -- As MLS managers and GMs have milled around their hotel this week, one has detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm for what was on show at the MLS Player Combine.
The reasons relate to the same realities that have been impacting the combine for the last several years. The steady drumbeat of Homegrown Player signings -- 21 in this offseason alone -- has continued to dilute the pool of available players. The influx of foreign players over the course of the league's history, combined with the relative easy acquisition of green cards has made life even more difficult for players leaving college to enter the pro game. The structure of the combine itself, in which the players play three games in five days with unfamiliar teammates does them no favors either.
An interesting wrinkle in this year's draft class is the heavy concentration of foreign players, with six of the seven Generation adidas signings coming from abroad as well as some college seniors. For teams with a shortage of foreign player roster slots, that could see some players be selected later in the first round than their talent might otherwise warrant.
But there is still a diamond or two to be found, and it's worth nothing that reigning Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel was obtained with the eighth overall pick last year. Given that the acquisition costs are nil for those who are draft eligible, those teams who do their homework will oftentimes see a payoff, regardless of a player's pedigree.
"We have to sometimes remind ourselves that the work that's being done in academies is really important but the net needs to be cast wide," said LAFC manager Bob Bradley.
"We need to continue to make sure that the opportunities for players everywhere are there and that's how we can make improvements."
With that in mind, here are some players to keep an eye on during Friday's MLS SuperDraft:
1. Joao Moutinho, DF, Akron
The Portuguese defender impressed on the first day as a center-back, showing no hesitation in carrying the ball out of the back and then making smart passes to teammates. But given that he's a bit undersized for a central defender Moutinho has been touting himself as a left-back, and he struggled on the second day of the combine in that position, failing to connect with teammates as consistently as he did on the first day. There have also been rumblings that he might have been carrying a back injury. That said, Moutinho has plenty of skills that ought to translate to the next level.
2. Francis Atuahene, MF/FW, Michigan
The latest Ghanaian to be produced by the Right to Dream program, Atuahene looked set to be the most snake-bit player at the combine. He engaged in plenty of impressive approach work only to be let down by some wayward finishing. That is until the latter stages of Day 3 when he controlled a ball over the top with a deft touch and a cool finish. Without question, his physical gifts and ability to play on the left wing, along with his Generation adidas status should see him selected in the top five.
3. Jon Bakero, FW, Wake Forest
The reigning MAC Hermann Trophy winner was the most consistent player at the combine, with his clever movement, velvet touch, and ability to glide past defenders showing why he's expected to be one of the top picks. One question is where he might play on the field. Bakero is a striker by trade, but that position is usually taken up by a high wage earner. For that reason Bakero got some looks at left midfield during the combine.
4. Mason Toye, FW, Indiana
Toye not only showed off his speed and strength during the week, but also some slick dribbling moves, including a dazzling sequence that saw him set up a goal at the end of the second matchday. The fact that Toye is an American as well as a Generation adidas signing means he'll have minimal impact on the salary cap. Just 19, Toye is viewed as an attacking talent with considerable upside.
5. Tomas Hilliard-Arce, DF, Stanford
Hilliard-Arce's stock took a bit of a hit at the combine, but it wasn't irreparably damaged to the point that assessments of his ability will change either. He is a consistent, physical, no-nonsense defender who helped lead Stanford to three national championships during his collegiate years. There are some questions about his mobility, but still a likely top-five selection.
6. Ema Twumasi, MF, Wake Forest
Another Right to Dream product, Twumasi found it a bit tough to get going during the first two matchdays, as he looked a bit sluggish. But he turned it up on Day 3, and was a constant menace on the right wing, thanks to his aggressive runs with the ball and willingness to strike at goal.
7. Mo Adams, MF, Syracuse
Visa issues prevented Adams from participating in the first two matchdays, but he did manage to arrive in time for Day 3. He acquitted himself well, showing good mobility, tenacity in the tackle, and range of passing. The fact that the Englishman would take up a foreign roster spot will mean that some teams may look elsewhere.
8. Tristan Blackmon, DF, University of the Pacific
Blackmon is probably the best outside back available given his ability to get forward. He also showed that he could play as a center-back in a pinch. That kind of versatility is bound to make him attractive to teams, though his future would seem to be clearly out on the flank.
9. Chris Mueller, MF/FW, Wisconsin
Played most of the previous season as a forward, but if the combine is any indication, MLS coaches believe Mueller's future is out on the flank. That could prove to be a good fit for a player with great ball-striking ability, be it with a shot or a cross. His performances picked up as the combine went on.
10. Ken Krolicki, MF, Michigan State
For those teams in search of a link player, Krolicki fits the bill. The Michigan State product seemed to settle into the combine environment with relative ease as he set up shop in the center of midfield and was tidy on the ball, especially on the first matchday.