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The Lowdown: Thoughts from the 2017 draft experience

Because the draft was right next to USWNT camp, No. 1 pick Rose Lavelle was able to attend. (photo by Dan Lauletta)
Because the draft was right next to USWNT camp, No. 1 pick Rose Lavelle was able to attend. (photo by Dan Lauletta)

Because the draft was right next to USWNT camp, No. 1 pick Rose Lavelle was able to attend. (photo by Dan Lauletta)

With a little help from the cozy locale in Southern California, the fifth NWSL draft achieved a new milestone when all 10 players selected in the 1st round were in attendance. After each of them accepted their new team scarves—warmup jackets for the two Courage draftees—and addressed the room, the group posed for an historic photo that also served to highlight NWSL’s growing diversity.

“I’m just particularly excited. There are so many stereotypes about black women playing soccer that all we are is fast. The world is changing. I can’t put my finger on it, why now there are more women of color playing the game, but all I can say is this sport is growing so with that comes diversity,” Crystal Dunn said.

The ten players selected in the first round of the 2017 NWSL College Draft (photo by Kieran Theivam)

The ten players selected in the first round of the 2017 NWSL College Draft (photo by Kieran Theivam)

Dunn was speaking on the opening day of the annual  January camp where this year’s top pick Rose Lavelle and No. 5 choice Christina Gibbons are also participating. The camp is in Carson which, depending on Los Angeles traffic, is anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour from the JW Marriott where the draft took place. That proximity allowed those players to be there for their draft moment. But they were not the only reasons the latest version of the NWSL draft took the event to new heights.

“It’s important that our players have another platform, so to go now and become a professional is going to help us down the line,” United States national team coach Jill Ellis said when asked about Lavelle. “We were obviously very happy, gave her a round of applause at the meeting and excited for her to begin a new journey.”

Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer and the person credited with the groundbreaking idea of having the pro league subsidized by the North American federations, posted this popular tweet tracing the evolution from the first player grab four years ago in Indianapolis.

That first draft was closed to the public, and the media (which did not include me that day) were kept in a separate room away from the clubs. As such, the picks hit Twitter before the press was alerted. This year’s event was a massive party in a massive ballroom complete with a live stream and an array of woso luminaries including Ellis and some of her players.

Here are five other observations from the experience that was the 2017 NWSL Draft.

the keeper game produces major surprise

The depth and nature of this draft was such that surprises were inevitable, but none sent murmurs through the room like when the Dash used the No. 15 pick on Stanford keeper Jane Campbell. It wasn’t that Campbell was the first keeper off the board—some expected Sky Blue to grab her at No. 10—it was that the Dash came into the day with a solid starter/backup combination of Lydia Williams and Bianca Henninger.

The Dash took Jane Cambpell at No. 15 sending shock waves at the draft room inside the JW Marriott.

The Dash took Jane Campbell at No. 15 sending shock waves at the draft room inside the JW Marriott.

“I just felt like we couldn’t pass on her when she became available,” Dash coach Randy Waldrum said. “I just thought she was the best player on the board at the time. She would be the goalkeeper I think you can bank your future on.”

The Dash spent much of 2016 without a pick in the first three rounds of the 2017 draft. That changed when they sent Allysha Chapman to Boston for the No. 15 pick. With that pick, the club began to eye a goalkeeper of the future.

‘We wanted (Campbell),” Waldrum said. “There was another keeper that we really liked. We had some discussions about whether we would take a keeper with that pick at 15. As it got closer we got a little antsy hoping it would play out that way.”

Sometimes picks are made based on roster information we don’t yet know about. But Waldrum was adamant that Williams will be back in 2017 although he added that as a player who lives in Australia, you never know from one year to the next. Waldrum added that he could go into the season with three keepers, but with a 20-woman roster limit that seems like wasting a key spot. I’ll be looking for Henninger to be moved before opening day.
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One of the teams that entered the day needing a goalkeeper was Sky Blue and they came into the day without a 2nd round pick which looked to be about where Campbell would land. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone in the room though, the player Christy Holly really wanted was Kailen Sheridan. He had to sweat out seven picks between the Dash taking Campbell at No. 15 and his next selection at No. 23. At one point he called a timeout and came close to trading up, but in the end his patience paid off and he got the goalkeeper he wanted.

{MORE DRAFT COVERAGE: Bush’s team-by-team analysis of 2017 NWSL Draft}

The only other goalkeeper taken was Sammy Jo Prudhomme to Boston at No. 31. That was another surprise since the Breakers had one more pick and there were several other keepers lingering who are likely to get invites to preseason camps. The Breakers subsequently missed out on Nickolette Driesse, who some consider the steal of the draft to the Pride at No. 32 plus local product McKenzie Meehan who went No. 34 to Sky Blue. Word is that Breakers coach Matt Beard thought Meehan would still be there for him at No. 38.

Jeff Plush speaks

Jeff Plush does not avail himself to the media very often but his press conference during or after the draft has become a staple. Here are some highlights of the NWSL commissioner’s chat with the press last week.

1) Plush on the collective bargaining negotiations between U.S. Soccer and the national team players: “We’re not part of that negotiation. I know that our camps will open and our players will be excited to be there. That will have to run its course and when that gets done, those players will be in camp as well. I have a lot of confidence in the long term.”

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush says the FOX deal is not an exclusive. (Photo Copyright Jeff Kassouf for The Equalizer)

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush says the FOX deal is not an exclusive. (Photo Copyright Jeff Kassouf for The Equalizer)

Pressed for an answer about whether national team players could sit out of the start of NWSL preseason if the CBA is not done, the commissioner would offer no assurances: “I’m not going to comment on what could happen.”

{MORE: Alex Morgan says USWNT strike still possible}

The next day, USWNT co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said the players had “every intention” of being in NWSL preseason, but she too stopped short of making it a guarantee.

2) On the salary structure Plush said details of how that will work in 2017 will be out in short order with increases across the board. The league is trying to increase player salaries but “we have to be prudent” as the league crawls slowly to sustainability. Plush said the short-term priority is to boost the bottom end and that there are no current plans for a designated player rule.

3) On the HB-2 issue in North Carolina, Plush said he plans to meet with Courage ownership and government officials in North Carolina and the Raleigh area. “I feel strongly that we are going to be participants in this and not just on the sideline. We welcome opinions. I (am not) for one second going to sit here and tell you I have all the answers. There is a lot more for me to learn certainly.

“We are not naïve. I have 100% confidence in the North Carolina ownership group and 100% confidence in the governor. We’ll get after it. We’ll work and be somebody I hope you can be proud of.”

The commissioner was further pushed on a question about whether the league had taken the safety of transgender fans into account when they approved the move to North Carolina.

“We’ve taken everyone into consideration with this announcement.”

4) On expansion and television Plush offered optimism on both fronts.

“The level of confidence is high,” he said about expansion.

“On the television front I am very confident we will have a TV deal that will be significantly more robust than in the past.”

When asked about adding national sponsors, Plush said the answer was at least partially tied to the television deal. He also added that NWSL needs to work to become a national property in order to be more attractive to sponsors.

5) Mexico will not be participating in allocation again in 2017. Allocations for the United States and Canada will be announced “in the near term.”

6) Plush confirmed the schedule will expand back to 24 games. The first four seasons had schedules of 22, 24, 20 and 20 games respectively.

From Freshman to seniors

This marked the first draft ever in women’s pro soccer that the senior class was able to track the same league through the duration of their careers (redshirts notwithstanding.) They were freshmen in 2013, meaning they went through recruiting and committing while NWSL was furiously preparing for it’s inaugural season.

“When I was a freshman the only future I could see and aim for was with U.S. Soccer,” Breakers 1st round pick Margaret Purce said. “To have another paradigm to prepare for was amazing and an exciting thing to prepare for.”

Margaret Purce got an Ivy League education at Harvard and also became a 1st round pick in NWSL.

Margaret Purce got an Ivy League education at Harvard and also became a 1st round pick in NWSL.

“As a freshman in college you’re not sure where you’re career is going to go and what’s going to happen,” FC Kansas City 1st rounder Christina Gibbons concurred. “There’s always the dream of playing afterwards. I’m very thankful the league has sustained through five years so I have an opportunity to play. That’s the dream.”

Who is the new favorite?

There are still roster moves to be made, but things are beginning to come together ahead of preseason and it is no longer too early to start talking about who the favorites are for the 2017 season. One thing we know is that this year’s NWSL Championship rematches will have an odd feel to them with the Flash now the North Carolina Courage and the Spirit roster a shell of the one that finished runners-up.

Beyond that the Flash were not close to being the best team during the season. That honor went to the Spirit and Thorns, and a mostly untouched Thorns side has to be tipped as favorites at this point. The Courage, though, should keep getting better and assuming the move goes smoothly and Riley (more about his status below) can keep them motivated, figure to be right in the mix.

The Red Stars have been impressive in terms of keeping their core group together over the last three seasons and barring some unexpected moves between now and April, appear on their way to doing so again. When I asked Rory Dames before the draft if he was down to simply fine-tuning the group, he offered up an interesting answer.

“We were a crossbar away from being in the final. The growth in the group from the start of the year to the end of the year was significant. When you have that amount of growth and you get that amount of buy-in from a group you don’t want to mess with it a lot. You just look for a few pieces that can make it better and not disrupt the flow of the group. That’s probably where we are this year, and that’s the first time we’ve been in that place.

“Do I think we deserved to win last year? No, probably not. Do I think we were good enough to win? Yeah, on any day we probably could have. But I think the way that it ended will be more motivation than anything I could have hoped for when everybody rolls back in. That was a pretty grim locker room. That’s the biggest kind of sting we’ve had. I think the group really felt like we were peaking. That feeling that was left with the group will really help.”

The buzz team figures to be FC Kansas City. After a draft that drew near universal praise plus the impending returns of Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux, the two-time champions could be poised to rebound after missing out on the playoffs for the first time.

For my money—right now—those are the four best sides in NWSL. Thorns, Courage, Red Stars, FC Kansas City. But stay tuned…

The Jordan factor

A few weeks before the draft I joked with Thorns coach Mark Parsons that he would use his No. 27 pick to take Savannah Jordan. He laughed and said there was no way Jordan would last that long.

Parsons was right of course, and it was his trade to get into the No. 18 pick that pulled Jordan off the board. The Florida goal-scoring machine would have been an easy Top 5 pick if she had not signaled her intent to play in Europe (she is expected to sign in France.)

This is not the first time the Thorns have dabbled in the futures market. In 2013 they took Amber Brooks No. 24 even after she had signed with Bayern Munich. She returned and suited up for the Thorns in 2014 and remains in NWSL today.

That the Thorns traded up to take Jordan would indicate more than one team was chomping at the bit to grab her, but there are multiple reasons why they were the perfect team to take the flyer. One is, they don’t really need a whole lot that the draft was going to help them with (Parsons said he contemplated Jordan at No. 14 but was delighted when Rachel Hill was still available and took her instead.) Second, the Thorns are now a well-established club with a worldwide reputation as one of the finest on the globe. As much as we may dislike the disparity, players are going to be much more likely to return from overseas for certain markets, and Portland leads that charge.

This one is worth keeping an eye on. I would not be surprised to see Savannah Jordan in Portland when 2018 rolls around.

Extra Time

-I bumped into an agent who represents a variety of female athletes across many different sports. One of the themes of our chat was how impressive it was to see so many different elements of American soccer together in the same place at the same time.

-Paul Riley was at the Courage draft table and told Big Apple Soccer’s Michael Lewis he is attempting to iron out contract details to stay on as head coach. In his first year with the then Western New York Flash, he guided the young club to an unexpected NWSL Championship.

-The league’s newest hire, Amanda Duffy, was a prominent part of draft day. The new Managing Director of Operations was the first person to take the stage and called out about half of the selections. Plush said there was no good reason for the league not to formally introduce Duffy other than to say they were busy dealing with things like the Flash sale to Steve Malik. Meanwhile, one prominent person affiliated with the league believed it was a bad look for Plush and Duffy to keep alternating as the person announcing the picks.

-Loved the story of Margaret Purce and her older brother arguing over the Twitter handle @100Purcent. In the end, Margaret won the rights to it in high school following a wild game of rock-paper-scissors.

-One of the best parts of the draft is when, during the later rounds, a name is called and a section of the room explodes into applause. That happened this year when the Pride grabbed Nickolette Dreisse with the No. 32 pick. No matter how careers turn out, being drafted is a moment these players will never forget.

-As I chatted with Vlatko Andonovski, Rory Dames and Laura Harvey, it occurred to me they are all about to enter their fifth season with their respective franchises (Dames actually took over the Red Stars in 2011 before the club joined NWSL.) I thought back to the first five seasons of Major League Soccer and realized that of that league’s 10 original coaches, only one—Dave Dir in Dallas—lasted into a fifth season. (To be fair, Bruce Arena left D.C. United after three seasons to take the U.S. job. Dir was fired after his fifth season.)

-I framed one question to Andonovski by reminding him that no one outside of Kansas City knew who he was when the team hired him. He cut me off and said: “Not too many people in Kansas City knew who I was either.”

-Make no mistake about it – Laura Harvey wanted Christina Gibbons.

-I take it as an excellent sign that Courage ownership allowed the existing technical team, led by Charlie Naimo, to handle the draft.

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