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The Lowdown: My annual attempt to unlock the NWSL Draft

Chicago Red Stars now have eight picks in the 2018 NWSL College Draft

Lee Billiard at the Chicago Red Stars table. Were these trade talks?

Lee Billiard at the Chicago Red Stars table. Were these trade talks?

In the world of wins, losses and draws, there remains one day when everyone can at least claim to have had a good day. Draft day. Overhyped by most in the states and misunderstood by most around the world, draft day is filled with limitless hope and unchecked emotion. For a few hours, young women who have devoted much of their formative years to soccer will realize their dreams of joining a professional team. Over the years the size of the draft room has grown exponentially, but they have yet to find a setting big enough to contain the exuberance.

Thursday’s NWSL draft will be the fifth of its kind, and many observers have tagged it the most unpredictable one so far.

“I think the first round is really unpredictable, which makes my pick an interesting pick,” Reign coach Laura Harvey, who holds the 6th pick, said. “It’s going to be interesting what other people do prior to me which will determine what I do. In years gone by I could probably predict what one to six would look like. But this year I don’t think I can do that. I actually like that. It’s great for the league.”

{FLASH SALE: Flash sold, will be North Carolina Courage | Statement from Sahlen family}

FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski entered the week one spot ahead of Harvey and said he has a few players in mind he believes will be on the board when it comes time for him to make the 5th pick. “If I can get one of those players, I will be very happy.”

Asked if he was confident in getting one of the targeted players, the two-time NWSL champion coach started to say yes and then trailed off into, “…all of them are very good players.”

Andonovski then harkened back to the first NWSL draft in 2013 when, sitting at No. 3, he was pleasantly surprised when the Red Stars and Spirit passed on Kristie Mewis. A year later the Blues turned Mewis into Amy Rodriguez, who scored all three of their goals in back-to-back NWSL Championship wins.

Back to this year’s event, the top of the draft has already been hit by the defections of Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan. The linchpins of West Virginia’s run to the College Cup final as well as John Herdman’s youth movement in Canada, the surefire 1st round picks recently joined Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon respectively.

Savannah Jordan, from Florida, is also a 1st round pick on most mock boards but has been linked to a move overseas. Complicating matters is that unlike the Canadians, Jordan has registered for the draft.

“I think you have to have multiple conversations with her and look for that honest answer,” Aly Wagner, who will be part of the league’s streaming draft coverage, said. “If it’s 50/50, I think it’s someone you take and you take her high.”

The scuttlebutt around the league is that Jordan is absolutely heading overseas but that she is still unlikely to be available after the 2nd round. In 2013 the Thorns took Amber Brooks at No. 24 even though she was already playing for Bayern Munich. She eventually joined the Thorns in 2014.
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The Breakers currently control much of the day with five of the first 11 picks including the 1st and 3rd. Matt Beard recently chatted with The Equalizer’s Kieran Theivam, but he has been protecting the identity of the first pick like an international spy code.

Most of Beard’s competitors believe he will take Wisconsin’s Rose Lavelle at No. 1 with eyes on New Englander and Hermann finalist Morgan Andrews at No. 3. The Breakers also hold picks 8, 9 and 11. Beard acquired the 8th pick a few weeks after suggesting there was no way he would use all of his early picks (some of which were sent to Chicago for No. 8). There is sentiment the Breakers could unload one of the late 1st round picks to acquire two or more later selections.

There is a monkey wrench between the Breakers’ first two picks though. The North Carolina Courage, until Monday the Western New York Flash, sit at No. 2. Technical director Charlie Naimo told The Equalizer he is still running the draft. But will new ownership step in with a hands-on approach or let Naimo—who turned four 1st rounders in 2015 into an NWSL Championship a year later—operate autonomously?

At one time the Flash/Courage were eyeing internationally-capped BYU star Ashley Hatch at No. 2, but Duke’s Christina Gibbons grew up and played college soccer in The Research Triangle and could be too juicy for ownership to pass over. She is unlikely to stick around until No. 7 when the Courage have their second pick.
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And then there are the goalkeepers. The 2017 keeper class is deep and is led by Stanford’s Jane Campbell. Kailen Sheridan from Clemson and national champion keeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme should also be in the mix. But which teams need keepers? And when is the right time to pull the trigger? In four drafts, only three goalkeepers have been selected inside the first two rounds. Take away Adrianna Franch at No. 6 to the Flash in 2013 and no keeper has been off the board before Taylor Vancil (Red Stars, 2013) and Katelyn Rowland (Kansas City, 2015) at No. 17.

Sammy Jo Prudhomme helped USC win the College Cup. Will she get a shout on draft day? (photo courtesy USC)

Sammy Jo Prudhomme helped USC win the College Cup. Will she get a shout on draft day? (photo courtesy USC)

The Spirit have yet to make a formal announcement about Stephanie Labbe, but Kelsey Wys tore her ACL in Australia and won’t be ready to start the season. So the rebuilding D.C. club could use a keeper. Sky Blue developed the Carolines—Stanley and Casey—last season and could use an upgrade. Is the 10th pick—they also own No. 4—too soon to pull the trigger? If not, their next selection at this point is No. 23. The Breakers like Abby Smith, but she has less than two full games of professional experience and had significant surgery last year. The Pride, Blues and Reign could all use some depth and development, but all three have solid starters.

As one coach said, there are more qualified goalkeepers available than ever before at a time when fewer teams than ever are looking for one.

So how will it all play out? See my guess at the 1st round below, but there are only a few things to be certain of. One is that no one knows what is going to happen, and the other is that there are few things better about covering NWSL than watching players in the hall react when their names are called.

My first round

1. Boston Breakers: Rose Lavelle
2. North Carolina Courage: Christina Gibbons
3. Boston Breakers: Morgan Andrews
4. Sky Blue FC: Kayla Mills
5. FC Kansas City: Toni Payne
6. Seattle Reign FC: Ashley Hatch
7. North Carolina Courage: Savannah Jordan (trade alert on this pick)
8. Boston Breakers: McKenzie Meehan
9. Boston Breakers: Nickolette Dreisse
10. Sky Blue FC: Rachel Hill

Extra Time

-Laura Harvey is preparing for 2017 as if Hope Solo will not be on the Reign but said Solo can play for the club as long as she wants. The club has not yet received official word about U.S. Soccer de-allocating her.

-The Breakers signed Amanda Frisbie, a former 1st round pick whose career has been held up by injury and lack of playing time. She most recently played in Iceland.

-No one at the Courage event was asked about HB-2—at least during the live stream, and I have seen nothing to indicate it was asked after the fact. Expect that to change this week when the commissioner Jeff Plush goes in front of the national media.

-Nothing firm to report, but I am not expecting Whitney Engen to play in NWSL this season.

-Don’t be surprised to see the Red Stars dip into the international market this season.

-Finally, I thought there was something off about the statement released by the Sahlen family on Monday. First the opening. “…it has become apparent that the Western New York market is not the right fit for the NWSL and the future direction of the league.” That strikes me as more of a kill shot for Rochester than something more akin to “Hey, we’ve been at this eight years, invested umpteen million dollars, the focus of our business is changing, and with no profit in sight, it was time to sell.” And while it would have been little solace for fans whose team is leaving town, almost certainly forever, there was nothing resembling any sort of warm, fuzzy goodbye and thank you to the fan base.

Who’s with me on this?

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