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2017 NWSL Draft: Gordon’s top picks by position

Jane Campbell will almost certainly be the first keeper off the board next week. How high she goes is open to debate (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

Jane Campbell will almost certainly be the first keeper off the board next week. How high she goes is open to debate (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

In a lot of ways, the 2017 NWSL draft class is a mirror image of the last year’s edition. While last year there was a glutton of center backs, this year that position is comparatively sparse to the bevy of forwards and goalkeepers available. There’s some intrigue to see how front offices handle this draft with so much seemingly up in the air surrounding the U.S. national team’s collective bargaining agreement and realized as well as potential moves to Europe.

With Boston holding four picks in the first round, all eyes will be on the Breakers’ staff, who have a decidedly bad track record when it comes to drafts in the present professional league. The Washington Spirit will also be front and center despite not holding a pick until near the end of the second round as much of this off season’s headlines have been dominated by last year’s runner-ups and not in a good way. Which recently created holes does the team try to address? 

Even with surefire first round picks Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan opting for Europe, there’s still plenty of talent on the board. While there’s still a lot to shake out between now and then, here are some names fans should expect to hear next Thursday in Los Angeles:

Goalkeepers

Jane Campbell – Stanford
Kailen Sheridan– Clemson
Hannah Seabert – Pepperdine

There’s no controversy surrounding who will be the first keeper off the board, although reasonable people disagree as to when this will occur.  Stanford’s Jane Campbell will have this honor. The 5-foot-9 Georgia native has many of the attributes that teams look for in a starter in net. An early exit in the NCAA tournament this year likely cost Campbell sole ownership of Stanford’s shutout record.  Instead, she’ll have to share the record with Cardinal great Nicole Barnhart–not bad company. She’s got decent size, is a good shot stopper and commands her box well.

Kailen Sheridan was a relative unknown to most NWSL fans until injuries and Karina LeBlanc’s retirement tested Canada’s goalkeeping depth last year. There’s an obvious parallel here to Clemson, who was basically a forgotten member of the ACC until recently. Sheridan and the other members of her class helped dramatically raise the Tigers’ profile. Sheridan, along with other recruits at the back — including center back Claire Wagner — helped deduce Clemson’s goals against average by over a goal per game from the year prior to their arrival as freshmen. Probably the biggest question surrounding her at the next level is her ability to make consistently good decisions.

A former Pepperdine player, Lynn Williams had quite a year in 2016 earning NWSL MVP honors and earning a shot with the U.S. national team. Could keeper Hannah Seabert be the next former Pepperdine player to make a wave at the pro level? Seabert, a four-year starter and three-year captain, has good reflexes that will serve her at the next level. Seabert is the program’s all-time saves record which is notable because Pepperdine has produced goalkeepers that have gone on to play at the international level namely Anna Picarelli (Italy) and Roxy Barker (South Africa). (Barker was also drafted by Portland Thorns in 2013.)  She will need to work on her footwork to make the transition to the next level, but her recent inclusion in the U.S. U-23 camp definitely helps cement her inclusion in the upper echelon of keepers available.

Defenders

Christina Gibbons – Duke
Kayla Mills – Southern California
Mandy Freeman – Southern California
Maddie Bauer– Stanford
Claire Wagner – Clemson

Perhaps Robbie Church has never been more right than when he described Christina Gibbons as a “really underrated player” when he announced his 2013 recruiting class. From that day in early 2013 to now, Gibbons has gone from a barely-recruited prospect to earning a call up to the full women’s national team. The Raleigh, N.C., native is extremely versatile filling in as needed to help the Blue Devils’ cause. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see Gibbons change positions in-game if the situation arose. Best as a left back at the next level, Gibbons covers a lot of ground, and is a tenacious defender. A two-way player, she’ll also be capable of getting into the attack, a supremely valuable attribute at the next level. At Duke, she helped lead a culture change as a junior captain that helped the Blue Devils go from missing the NCAA tournament to playing in the national championship the following season.  This season, she helped spearhead a run to the Elite Eight even after several stars including Olympic Bronze medalist Rebecca Quinn, were injured.

The next two defenders on the board are also versatile, Southern California’s Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills. Obviously, they were vital in the Trojans’ title run. What casual college soccer fans might not realize is that these two were playing different positions a year ago.

Mills starred as a right back previously. This year at defensive center midfield she showed that she has great composure and a very advanced soccer IQ to go along with the athleticism and speed she used to fly up and down the flanks in years prior. Freeman, who moved from center midfield to center back, could play along the backline or as a defensive midfielder. Her one v. one defending and closing speed will certainly entice suitors.

Sticking on the West Coast, center back Maddie Bauer of Stanford is also projected to come off the board early. In short, there aren’t a ton of players on the board like Bauer. She’s a modern center back meaning she’s more cerebral than bruiser, although she still has a bit of bite. Critics claim she would do well do be bit a more aggressive, however.  A very vocal center back, she operated as the anchor in the Cardinal’s backline and helped the team set play.

The aforementioned Wagner was also a key cog to Clemson’s ascension in the ACC. In the deep ACC, Wagner is often times overlooked. Superb in the air, the Cary, N.C., native knocked in 11 goals as a center back in her fours years including seven in the last two. If last season proved anything in NWSL, scoring off and defending against set pieces is often make or break in the sometimes physical league.

Midfielders

Rose Lavelle– Wisconsin
Meggie Dougherty Howard – Florida
Morgan Andrews – Southern California
Alexis Shaffer – Virginia
Nickolette Driesse – Penn State

Rose Lavelle, who been on the radar with the U.S. national team for quite some time,  is a rare kind of player that makes soccer seem more like an artistic performance than an athletic endeavor. She appears to glide with the ball effortlessly, a testament to the adage that the best athletes make it look easy.  An outside-of-the-box personality both on and off the field, the former Badger is a true, first-rate attacking midfielder, something of a rarity in NWSL. Her slight build may be a bit of a concern but she’s managed to keep up in the Big Ten, probably the most physical of the major conferences in women’s soccer.

Morgan Andrews figures to be off the board early next Thursday. (photo courtesy USC Women's Soccer Twitter)

Morgan Andrews figures to be off the board early next Thursday. (photo courtesy USC Women’s Soccer Twitter)

Meggie Dougherty Howard of Florida is another midfield prospect that will come off the board quickly. A well-rounded midfielder that’s capable of contributing from box to box, Dougherty Howard’s got good vision and does the “simple” stuff well. Functioning as the glue between the Florida offense and defense, Dougherty Howard’s offensive numbers increased the past two years, which in turn has improved her draft stock. This past fall, she notched eight goals and 12 assists for the Gators. Additionally, the Florida native was perhaps the Washington Spirit Reserves most important cog in their run to the last USL W-League title in 2015.

Morgan Andrews is the classic comeback story after transferring from Notre Dame and being inexplicably left off the 2014 U-20 World Cup squad, and ending her career hoisting the national title trophy in her last collegiate game. A sensation as a teenager in New Hampshire, Andrews has been in the spotlight for quite some time. She is a technical player with great vision and passing range  but perhaps her most enduring trait is her ability to just simply take over games. It’s something that’s impossible to define or measure, but it’s there. It was no more apparent that in the 2015 NCAA tournament when Andrews scored a hat trick to power USC over Cal State Fullerton in the first round of NCAA tournament going down 0-2 to the Titans.

Alexis Shaffer is the latest off Virginia’s conveyor belt of good midfield prospects. Often confined to the right wing when Virginia greats Danielle Colaprico and Morgan Brian were on campus, Shaffer really blossomed the last two seasons culminating in her winning both the ACC Offensive Player of the Year and Midfielder of the Year awards this season. The Cary, N.C., native is a technical attacking midfielder who can use both feet well, a trait far too rare on this side of the Atlantic. She can also be deadly from distance which is good way to keep defenses honest. Surrounded by a lot of youth this season, it seemed at times that Shaffer was trying to do too much. Nonetheless, the skills Shaffer possesses will be enough to merit a first or second round pick.

For fans that like picks to be backed up by palatable numbers, Nickolette Driesse’s inclusion will send their heads’ spinning. She hasn’t put up particularly gaudy numbers at any point in her career but the Seminole turned Nittany Lion rarely commits turnovers and does a good job of keeping the ball circulating. She was part of Florida State’s 2014 national championship team before transferring to Penn State. The following year she ended up with another national title, this time getting to contribute more offensively which she prefers. Penn State’s season ended a lot earlier this year, far from surprising given all the team lost to graduation and the U-20 World Cup, Driesse, the lone senior on this year’s squad, looks primed to join all of the Penn State seniors from a season ago at the professional level.

Forwards

Savannah Jordan – Florida
Rachel Hill – UConn
Ashley Hatch – BYU
McKenzie Meehan – Boston College
Midge Purce- Harvard  

Florida’s Savannah Jordan at this time last year had scored more goals than anyone in the 2016 draft class, despite still having a year of eligibility left. That’s quite a feat especially playing in a power five conference. The former Gator is deadly inside the area and is strong. She’s also got incredible balance in no doubt partially due to her martial arts training. Forwards never seem like a sure thing when it comes to the draft, but Jordan is the most promising prospect NWSL has seen at the position. Although she’s entered the draft, there are rumors circulating that she’ll head overseas. The veracity of these rumors will be tested by how quickly Commissioner Jeff Plush reads her name next week.

UConn’s Rachel Hill will likely be one of the first forwards off the board next week. Hill’s got a superb work rate that makes her a strong candidate for playing on the wing in midfield at the professional level. In addition to her work rate, she possesses good speed, athleticism and anticipation. Hill has also been a consistent scorer in college, scoring no less than 13 goals in a season. In total, the Husky could be a good fit for a team looking for someone to fill a position requiring a good motor.

Ashley Hatch has many of the attributes that make for an attractive early draft selection at forward. She’s fast, strong, and has scored a lot of goals in her collegiate career. Not only has Hatch scored a lot but she can score in a variety of ways.  Last season, there were definitely some questions surrounding Hatch after a small fracture in her knee wrecked her junior year, limiting her to just four goals in 13 games played. In 2016, she rebounded to average nearly a goal a game with 19 goals in 20 appearances while also juggling duty with the U.S. national team. She’s fast, strong, and has scored a lot of goals in her collegiate career. What she’s probably most known for though is her physicality.  As a physical force, finding the right fit at the pro level, i.e. a team that values that aspect of the game is essential for Hatch to become a force in the league early on.

McKenzie Meehan seems to always be in the right place on the field at the right time. Paradoxically, she was in the absolute worst spot at the worst time when she sliced her Achilles in a freak accident and was forced to redshirt.  Scoring 58 goals in her four years in Boston College, Meehan’s career numbers are impressive and she ranks No 1 in program history for goals and points in a program that produced some notable offensive talents. Having played in one of the toughest conferences in the nation also means she’s seen some of the best defensive talent the NCAA has to offer as well. Many of the forwards at the top of this year’s rankings haven’t.

This draft class features not one but two exciting striker prospects from the Ivy League, which is a bit of an oddity. Both Margaret ‘Midge’ Purce, of Harvard and Tyler Lussi of Princeton are likely to be selected in this draft. Honestly, both have made a strong case to be included in this list but the edge goes to Purce. A selection to both the U-17 and U-20 World Cup roster in 2012 and 2014, the Maryland native is a known quantity. She’s also spent time with the Washington Spirit Reserves helping the team earn a trophy in 2014. She’s got quick feet and excels at taking players on. She’s also a forward that looks to get in behind defenses, a tactic often used in the NWSL where high pressure is the norm.

NOTES

As noted before there’s a lot of goalkeeping talent available in the draft. While there doesn’t appear to be much need for keepers at this point, I doubt many would have guessed that five would have been taken in last year’s draft. In truth, when it comes to retirements or other player movement sometimes, the need isn’t generally known to exist before the draft. See Chantel Jones and Western New York last year. Of course, this isn’t limited only to goalkeepers.

Sign of the times? Clemson probably has the strongest crop of draftees out of any team in the ACC. Catrina Atanda, Kailen Sheridan, and Claire Wagner are all likely to be three of the 40 names uttered by Jeff Plush next week. Meanwhile, Florida State who’s one of the few teams that’s had a player taken in every NWSL draft is in all likelihood going to be shut out.

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