Last week’s Expansion Draft more or less put an end to the process of admitting the Houston Dash into NWSL. The club now has enough players to field a team, and enough good players to make an impact. They figure to add at least one more quality player on Friday when they pick 2nd in the NWSL College Draft. The club has also already sold more season tickets than some games drew in 2013, so their positive effect on NWSL looks like it will be noticeable early on.
What is mildly troubling about the method in which the Dash stocked their roster is that it sets a precedent that will be impossible to follow as NWSL continues to grow. Once upon a time, North American sports would expand and the new teams would get to pick a few scraps the others did not want and had to slowly and often painfully build through drafting and trading. It took years. Over the years standards have been dropped for protecting players for expansion drafts. This trend, along with free agency, has made it easier or new teams to compete. And in soccer the pool of players always expands far and wide, never limited to those already in the league or ready to graduate college. Just ask the Seattle Sounders.
That said, did the treatment of the Houston Dash go too far? Let’s take a look at the ways they acquired players.
Allocation: This was always going to be a factor since the three federations are offsetting player costs by funding 50 players around the league. The Dash were allocated Whitney Engen, Melissa Tancredi (since traded for Erin McLeod), and Teresa Noyola, and were given options to add other allocated players in the Expansion Draft. Of the three, only Noyola played in the league in 2013 (with Kansas City) as Mexico made the odd decision to move players from team to team. No issues here.
Expansion Draft: Any Expansion Draft figures to have some good players up for grabs, but the Dash had access to a number of proven stars. Any team with three or more U.S. allocations—everyone but the Flash—were required to leave one unprotected. The Dash went with Meghan Klingenberg and elected to leave the other spot on the board, but they would have been within their rights to snatch up unprotected Americans like Nicole Barnhart and Rachel Buehler. Both are favorites to be on the World Cup team next summer and were major contributors to their respective clubs’ success in 2013. It seemed a little rough for the system to be set up in such a way that hands were forced to leave them exposed. Also, had the Dash taken two U.S. allocations they would have had three and could have left two teams with only two. That seems counterintuitive to me.
College Draft: This one puzzles. All indications are that the Dash were originally slotted in at No. 5 in between the playoff and non-playoff teams. At some point the league took a closer look at it and bumped them to No. 2. Why though? Not only did No. 5 seem like a fair landing place, but what was the logic behind No. 2? Did the league simply take pity on the Spirit and make sure they got whichever player they have been eyeing? (The overwhelming consensus is that player in Crystal Dunn.)
The change from No. 5 to No. 2 primarily impacts the Red Stars (original holders of No. 2 and 3) and FC Kansas City (No. 4). The Blues have the much larger gripe. It was October 17 when they shipped Courtney Jones to the Breakers for the right to swap 1st Round picks. That was 47 days after the championship match and while Dash talks had begun behind the scenes by that time, it was clear FCKC made the deal with the No. 4 pick in mind. Teams who make such trades often do so with a specific player or two in mind. Sources told The Equalizer after the trade the Blues thought they could get one of two players they wanted.
Sure the Red Stars also drop a spot—essentially from No. 2 to No. 4—but they made their trade in March. That means they traded on speculation. Buyer beware in cases like that. As of close of business Monday, there have already been seven trades involving six different picks in the 2015 draft. All speculation since no one knows who will finish where or whether the league will expand again.
The future: All of this will certainly be brought up when future teams are admitted. But can they possibly be treated as well as the Dash have been? The allocation issue is its own special case, but will teams be required to expose U.S. allocations during future expansion drafts? More importantly, will there be any consistency that will guide teams when they build their rosters? And if multiple teams come in, will they be inserted at or near the top of the draft, knocking down clubs that desperately need talent infusions? Major League Soccer traditionally lets their expansion teams move to the top of the draft, but fresh college graduates are far more vital in the women’s game than the men’s. There has also never been an MLS expansion club announced for a season for which direct preparation has already begun (not a criticism of the timing of the Dash entry just a fact.)
Most of these issues are little more than some growing pains for a league that was hastily put together a year ago and is still clearly finding its footing when it comes to certain guidelines. And consider this: barring something far out of left field this will be the first time ever in women’s professional soccer in the United States that all existing clubs will return as is and a new team will join the lineup.
Here is some quick analysis of Monday’s trades and news.
Karina LeBlanc to Red Stars for 2nd Round pick in 2015: The Thorns inked Nadine Angerer so LeBlanc became a trade asset. A 2nd Rounder in ’15 may have been a bit light, but they were somewhat backed into a corner since few teams were about to offer anything of substance since everyone else already had a quality starting keeper. LeBlanc will be a big loss in Portland but Angerer—who captured the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year honor a short time after announcing the Thorns as her new club—is an upgrade in the penalty box.
For the Red Stars, unless you have a strong opinion about the difference between LeBlanc and Erin McLeod, then they basically traded a 2015 draft pick for Melissa Tancredi. It was Tancredi that came from Houston for McLeod and opened the spot for LeBlanc. I’d probably give LeBlanc a small edge over McLeod but either way, unless Tancredi lost her edge attending chiropractor school this was a big win overall for the Red Stars. Also look for backup Taylor Vancil to give LeBlanc a run for her money when it comes to playing time in goal.
Bianca Henninger to Dash for No. 19 pick: I thought the Dash might take Henninger in the Expansion Draft but evidently they figured the price to acquire a backup keeper after the fact was less than bypassing whoever they would have left on the board for her. FC Kansas City were a little up against it here after being allocated Cecilia Santiago, a promising but young keeper from Mexico. Santiago is also guaranteed a roster spot so moving Henninger was a virtual necessity. The Dash now have McLeod and Henninger which should serve them well in their maiden season.
Sinead Farrelly to Thorns for No. 16 pick: Henninger went to Houston to play for her U-23 coach Randy Waldrum. The Thorns acquired Farrelly and will reunite her with Paul Riley who took her No. 2 in 2011 (WPS) and also coached her in WPSL Elite. Farrelly looks to be a player right on the cusp of starting, something she did 10 times in 16 appearances for FC Kansas City last season. Presently she looks like a first team player in Portland especially until Tobin Heath comes back from France. FC Kansas City, having acquired two picks Monday, have five of the first 20 and six altogether. This for the team that took Erika Tymrak at No. 11 last season. Could the trade also be an indicator that Sarah Hagen is ready to return to the U.S.?
Stephanie Ochs to Dash for Danesha Adams: Another coach/player reunion as Ochs also played for Waldrum in Houston. Unfortunately she did not play particularly well for the Spirit last season. They protected her for the Expansion Draft so they must think highly enough of Adams to have pulled the trigger on this one. Ochs was taken No. 1 in last year’s Supplemental Draft and Tiffany McCarty was taken No. 2 in the college draft. Both are now Houston Dash players and all the Spirit have to show for it is Adams, a solid forward who if nothing else will change things up at the goal-starved SoccerPlex.
-This is the second time Karina LeBlanc has been traded to the Red Stars by Paul Riley. In 2010 the Independence sent her to the Red Stars for draft picks, but before she had a chance to suit up in the Windy City, the Red Stars packed their bags for WPSL. LeBlanc wound up in residency with Canada and then had a brief stint with magicJack.
-Interesting move by FC Kansas City to move over to Stanley H Durwood Stadium where they will play to a capacity of 3,200. Of their 12 home games including playoffs in 2013, all but one surpassed 3,200. That could create demand for tickets, and it will certainly reduce complaints about football lines.
-The Breakers are also moving, to Harvard Stadium. There will not be any ticket demand at the spacious old place and there are lines for more sports than you can imagine. But the location is better and it will give the club some added flexibility. Dilboy Stadium was ideal for WPSL Elite in 2012 but not so much for NWSL in 2013.
-The imbalanced allocations this season made it inevitable, but trades are now allowed to be made without regard for allocation status. The LeBlanc trade was the first of them. Last year allocated players could only be moved for other allocated playersfrom the same federation.
-Another roster change is the addition of a third international spot. It remains to be seen how many teams are able to take advantage of this. Allocated players from Canada and Mexico do not count towards the three.
-My prediction for the top five picks on Friday — 1. Crystal Dun (WAS); 2. Kealia Ohai (HOU); 3. Julie Johnston (CHI); 4. Vanessa DiBernardo (CHI); 5. Kassey Kallman (KC). Kallman is a stretch and probably wouldn’t have been worth the trade in October for FCKC, but she seems to fill a positional need and there are indications the Red Stars are at least willing to move one of their high picks. Not anticipating being right here.