MLS's No. 1 pick Joao Moutinho: To L.A. from Lisbon via Akron

Joao Moutinho, a product of the Sporting Lisbon youth program that spawned Cristiano Ronaldo, was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft.

The 20-year-old, who credits playing backyard soccer with his grandfather for launching his soccer career, will be moving to Los Angeles to play for MLS expansion club LAFC after playing one season with the Akron Zips, which he helped reach the 2018 College Cup semifinals.


Moutinho joined Sporting at age 10, and although he early on moved from midfield to the back line, reveres Ronaldo above all.

"He played at Sporting, too," says Moutinho. "His mentality of wanting to be the best and finishing first every time. He's such a god in Portugal."

VERSATILITY AND EXCELLENT PASSING. But Moutinho saw a different route to the pro game when an international college placement firm, Next Level Sports, informed him of American college soccer opportunities. And Akron coach Jared Embick got a call about an exceptionally talented left back.

"We had a left back, Nico De Vera," said Embick. "But they said, 'He can play right back, midfield, he can play other positions very well.'"

A pickup game was set up for Embick to scout Moutinho.

"Once I saw him, it was no-brainer," Embick said. "We decided to bring him over and we moved him to center back, because that's where our biggest hole was. And he exceeded what we thought he could do. His defending, his anticipation, and in our style of play, the most important thing is his passing. And because of those traits we able to control games and dominate opponents and get back to the final four."

'THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY.' Moutinho had previously been to the USA only a once, a brief visit to New York City a few years ago. But just hearing about the college opportunity in Ohio -- and Akron's history of sending players on to MLS -- was enough to convince him to leave Portugal.

He was well prepared, already speaking flawless English, something he credits to watching American TV shows. His favorite which was "House."

Adjusting to a new country proved a smooth process both on and off the field.

"We played at Sporting the same as we play at Akron," Moutinho said. "Dominant soccer. Always wanting to be on top of the game. Keeping possession of the ball and going to the final third quickly."

Off the field: "The land of opportunity, really. People are so nice and everybody took me in so well when I got to Akron."

THE COMMON LANGUAGE.  Moutinho's 2017 teammates included players from the USA, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Brazil, and fellow Portuguese Manuel Cordeiro.

"The thing that helps us with internationals is the way we play," said Embick. "They enjoy how we try to play. I think sometimes internationals end up with one of the direct teams and maybe they're disappointed. When they join us, they love it. The common language has been our style of play."

Akron, the NCAA champ in 2010, also reached the semifinals in 2015. After Moutinho was picked at No. 1, de Vera, a Washington state product, was picked in the second round by the New York Red Bulls, becoming the 24th Akron played picked in the MLS SuperDraft since 2013.

The many former Akron players who went on to MLS include domestic and international products, such as Perry Kitchen, DeAndre Yedlin, Steve Zakuani, Dillon Serna, Wil Trap and Darlington Nagbe.

Embick says the mix players from different backgrounds has created excellent chemistry.

"It's a good advertisement that people are people for the most part, wherever you come from," he said. "Good character and good kids -- and the environment will be good. They feel united by the sense of their own journey over here. And they're appreciative of the opportunity.

"Our Ohio kids and our American kids, they embrace them, instead of being jealous or resentful that maybe I'm losing a chance to an international. They embrace the opportunity to learn from someone else who's from halfway across the world. That cultural experience that they can bring everyday life."

For Moutinho, the experience has enabled another big move -- more than halfway across the country to start his pro career.

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