Aly Wagner says the key to a deeper understanding of soccer is to watch for the touches of the passes that relieve pressure.
“The people that can solve pressure. If there is a reason someone is taking a touch to a certain space there is a beauty in that,” the two-time Olympic gold medalist said earlier this week. “I would say whether it’s movement off the ball whether it’s a touch or a pass, look for those moments that kind of spring someone, that relieve pressure, that change the flow of the game.”
Those are the qualities NWSL teams will be looking for when the 2017 draft gets going Thursday afternoon at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Los Angeles. Wagner, the top overall pick in what was the final WUSA draft, will be part of the live streaming coverage offered by the league. An analyst for FOX where she won great acclaim for her work on the 2015 World Cup as well as the PAC-12 Network, draft day will be Wagner’s first foray into NWSL.
“I have a lot of hope and I want to invest in this league and see it grow,” Wagner said as the top reason she said yes when the league approached her about being part of the coverage. “I hopefully can bring some good knowledge to the table so I take some pride in that. I also want to understand some of the talent that is coming into the league so I’m better versed and I can speak to it even when I’m calling national team games.”
Once Wagner accepted the role she turned her attention to preparing. Her PAC-12 job gave her insight on many of the best players on the West Coast, and she said many of those teams scheduled tough opponents early in the season which allowed her to see other top players around the country. But with players down to the Ivy League on the radar of NWSL coaches and no centralized method of following the college game, the process can be daunting.
“I would say that it would be impossible—unless you’re Jen Cooper—to be prepared going in without any work behind the scenes. It’s that kind of work. Trying to look up videos on players that I don’t knowand haven’t seen; get refreshers on the ones that I have; I’m reaching out to a lot of sources on their take on certain players.
What I like to do is make my own opinion, but you can’t do that with 100 plus players. That’s the challenging part for me is I’ve been trying to get as much video as I can access so I can draw my own conclusions. So it’s been a lot of work.”
Even putting in the hours poring over video creates an incomplete process, Wagner said. Highlight packages not only serve a player’s best days and plays but they leave out certain key components as off-the-ball movement and how they impact the overall flow of play. “Some of the intangibles that make a good pro you miss out on. So those are the elements that you have to extrapolate from people you trust.”
This year’s draft class has long been pegged as one of the best though it has been hit by the defections of Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan to Europe and the possibility that Savannah Jordan might do the same. Some feel the strength of the group is in its depth as opposed to being top heavy.
“From what I gather from a lot of the coaches is that there are a few in the upper echelon that people feel will make an immediate impact. Then there is a big core of players that are all very good but none really separating themselves from out of the pack. It’s going to be about who’s left on the board at the time to see players go.”
The overwhelming consensus is that the Breakers will use the top overall pick on Wisconsin’s Rose Lavelle. Wagner agrees.
“I do think Rose Lavelle is a special player. I think she’ll go one. By all accounts and by my own perception she is one of the most technically gifted players we have had in awhile. I think that with the right people around her she is going to be a definite player of the future. She should be number one and deserves to be.”
At one time Wagner was one of the most technically gifted players around. Before she won two Olympic gold medals over the course of making 131 appearances for the United States, Wagner a national championship and Hermann Trophy at Santa Clara where she was one of the best passers of the ball the college game has ever seen.
For her exploits, as well as already being experienced at the international level, Wagner was the first overall pick by the San Diego Spirit, who sat at No. 2 and traded three players to the New York Power just to swap picks and get their hands on Wagner. Her club career wound up spanning seven years but only two domestic teams. WUSA folded after her rookie season (she had been traded to the Breakers for Angela Hucles not long before the announcement) and she was still around for the 2009 WPS season when she played for the Los Angeles Sol.
Both the 2003 Spirit and 2009 Sol suffered crushing playoff defeats. They are losses, Wagner admits, that did not carry the weight they probably should have.
“I will be completely frank. For me personally, no it didn’t feel like it was a major priority and that’s one thing I would say I almost kind of regret,” the now 36-year old, mother of four admitted. “The focus was so much on the national team. I don’t know if it was just that was where the attention swirled around but that’s where all of our focus was. I guess perhaps because that’s your ultimate goal. And you don’t think beyond the fact that maybe you’d want to play past your national team career.
“I would say that I probably didn’t put the priority on it that I should have.”
So what if Wagner was playing in NWSL today?
“If I was playing now? Absolutely NWSL would be a number one priority of where I would want to focus my energy and prove myself within the game.”
One of the reasons for that is Wagner believes the current iteration of women’s pro soccer has a higher level of competition as well as the type of traction the two league she played in never did.
“Soccer is in a different sphere altogether than when I was playing,” she said. “The league has traction, it has eyeballs on it. Players thrive in those environments.”
Wagner refuses to admit that her name adds value to Thursday’s draft broadcast. Those who watch her know better. The ability to weave the knowledge she gained as a player with a suitable on-air detachment from her national team self has made Aly Wagner into one of the most trusted analysts of women’s soccer in the country. This will be her first direct foray into NWSL, but she hopes not the last.
“I really love it. I just think there is a beauty to the game that maybe sometimes gets overlooked. I like pointing out those things that I think are special moments. I think the NWSL has a lot of those special moments. My goal, my hope is that the league keeps growing and we can get it on national television throughout the season. And I would love to be a part of it.”