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The Lowdown: Getting ready for Draft Day 2018

Lee Billiard, standing, consults with the Chicago Red Stars brain trust at an NWSL draft of yesteryear.

It’s draft week. That means a few things. For one, it’s the week when everyone is in a good mood since no one has been dealt any losses yet. For another, it’s a time when trying to figure out what is going to happen becomes an annual case of futility. The 2017 NWSL Draft was probably the wildest and most unpredictable of them all, and scuttlebutt is that 2018 could be even crazier.

Let’s start at the top. The Spirit have already suggested they will use the No. 1 pick on Hermann winner and internationally capped Andi Sullivan. One slight hiccup though – at last check, Sullivan had not declared for the draft. That could be anything from a power play to try and get more money out of U.S. Soccer if they are going to make her a Federation Player, or it could be something as simple as doing things at the last minute. Speaking to The Equalizer last week, Spirit coach Jim Gabarra expressed optimism that Sullivan would be there ready and waiting to use as the top pick.

On Tuesday, Gabarra made a trade with the Houston Dash where he sent Lindsay Agnew to Houston in exchange for moving up to the No. 3 overall pick with the Dash sliding to No. 6. Though the consensus is that the Spirit got a steal with this trade either way, it does not seem like a move by a team that doesn’t have a relatively good idea what will be available with the No. 3 pick. And the presence, or lack thereof, of Sullivan in the No. 1 spot, will severely alter the landscape at No. 3.

Just about everyone who spoke to me about the draft agreed that there is Sullivan, then Rebecca Quinn and Savannah McCaskill, and then a significant drop off. Maybe Dash coach Vera Pauw sees it differently, but she just effectively traded the right to draft one of those three players for Lindsay Agnew.

(Counterpoint, maybe Pauw traded out of the Top 3 on the knowledge that Sullivan won’t be in the draft and that Quinn and McCaskill will be taken 1-2. I wouldn’t bet on this, but it’s possible until we’re told it’s not.)

Beyond the Top 3

Once the first three picks are off the board, it will be up to Sky Blue FC to make consecutive picks to round out the Top 5. After finishing the season sixth to earn the No. 5 pick, they moved up into Utah’s No. 4 slot as part of the return for Kelley O’Hara. Like the Spirit trading up to No. 3, you have to believe that Denise Reddy had somebody in mind when she agreed to that pick being part of the trade. Like Pauw, Reddy will be conducting her first draft as a head coach and has thus far played her hand extremely tight to the vest, refusing to even comment on the remarkable season of 2017 MVP Sam Kerr.

{MORE:  Gordon’s 2018 NWSL Draft rankings by position}

“There’s a lot of video that you watch, and of course there’s a lot of phone calls,” Reddy said last year of her draft preparation. “You need to speak to the coach of the player because there’s a lot of different things that come into play – character, and the human. I want to know about the player. And then a lot of times you want to speak to the opponents’ coaches and (find out) what they felt when they were playing this player and what they were able to do.”

In many ways, Reddy holds the keys to the rest of the first round and possibly the rest of the draft. The club needs a new back line. O’Hara is gone, replaced by Rebekah Stott, and Erica Skroski has admitted herself that she is a better central defender than fullback, where she has been the last season and a half. If Reddy goes defensive with her picks, will that sway the teams behind to go after attackers? Or will it leave them chasing what defenders remain on the board?

{NEEDS AND FITS: Bush, Lee break it down}

It is anyone’s best guess what the Dash are thinking with their move down to No. 6, and I would circle the Red Stars No. 7 pick for a trade alert. After that comes the Thorns at No. 8 and No. 9 and the Courage at No. 10. Those are the two teams that have monopolized the NWSL Championship and Shield the last two seasons, and they find themselves as the two clubs with enough depth to give them some unique drafting flexibility.

Both teams flashed a bit of that flexibility last season. The Courage used the No. 7 pick on Darian Jenkins even though they knew an injury would almost certainly keep her out the rest of the season (it did.) And the Thorns traded up to select Scotland-bound Savannah Jordan, who eventually returned to the States and finished the season with the Thorns before being traded for Andressinha last week.

This year’s Savannah Jordan is Michaela Abam. The West Virginia product was a goal-scoring machine in college but recently told her hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, that she may explore options in Europe, possibly as leverage for greater pay in NWSL. Not only can the Thorns and Courage both afford to wait on Abam if she starts her pro career abroad, they are also among the more desirable clubs to play for in terms of tipping the scales in favor of staying put.

Beyond the 1st Round and the keeper game

The Reign, Royals and and Pride do not have first round picks, and from that trio only the Royals are even in the second round. As it stands, the Reign do not pick until No. 36, but look for self-professed draft nerd Vlatko Andonovski to try and pull something off to move somewhere into the second round. The Red Stars are overloaded with picks (13, 17 and 18 in the second round alone) and Rory Dames likes to leverage his assets for future picks, so that could be a solid match.

Vlatko Andonovski showing off his 2017 draft board. Will he wait it out before picking at No. 36 or find a way to trade up? (photo from Bryn Raschke)

Beyond the top three players—Sullivan, Quinn and McCaskill—there is a hidden fourth, but Rutgers goalkeeper Casey Murphy is likely to head overseas rather than enter the draft. The goalkeeper position has always been a draft within a draft. Few keepers over the years have been selected in the first round, mostly because so few teams need keepers that the best ones are almost certain to be around later in the day.

Last year there was a reasonable chance that Sky Blue would take Jane Campbell at No. 10, but Christy Holly had his eyes on Kailen Sheridan all along. Campbell went to the Dash at No. 15—and that was one of the surprises of the day—and Sky Blue eventually grabbed Sheridan at No. 23.

There is another element to the keeper game though. Looking around the league there really isn’t a team where a rookie keeper would have a reasonable expectation of starting. The Royals have yet to announce Nicole Barnhart, but word is she put herself back together again this offseason and intends to continue playing. Utah is one team that would be wise to bring in a backup/heir apparent, but Barnhart is as solid as they come and has not missed a match in two years. So any decision by a keeper to head overseas could simply be a matter of going somewhere with a chance to play.

Back to Murphy, one coach who is considering taking a keeper told me that even though Murphy has the makings of a special player, it would be too much of a stretch to burn a first round pick on her. Barring a last-minute change of heart, that sees Murphy enter the draft, look for Emily Boyd to be the first keeper off the board, and look for it to happen before the end of the second round.

We have not heard the last of the big names getting traded

An offseason that began slowly began to percolate with the Kelley O’Hara trade just before the New Year and exploded 48 hours before the draft with the Spirit moving the rights to Crystal Dunn to North Carolina. That won’t be the end of it.

Many of the league’s biggest names are there to be had for various reasons. Carli Lloyd. Rose Lavelle. Christen Press. Even MVP Sam Kerr. There are no assurances that any of these players are moved, but there is enough chatter in league circles to make it quite evident that these players and others could be going to training camp next month with teams other than the ones they are currently affiliated with.

Buckle up folks. The ride is just getting started.

Fun draft story…

Here are the goalkeepers that have been drafted in the first round dating back to the first WUSA draft in December 2000.

2000: Gao Hong
2003: Hope Solo
2010: Alyssa Naeher
2013: Adrianna Franch

Note that while Naeher was officially a first round pick, WPS added two picks to the end of the opening round as a competitive balance bonus for the two expansion teams. So Naeher was drafted 11th in a first round that included nine teams. Anyway…

A few years ago at the convention I bumped into an old friend from the WUSA era, and we got to reminiscing about the old league. The following story was revealed to me.

The initial draft included a slew of international players the league had signed to contracts but had not assigned to teams. Five of them were Chinese players, the fruits of a delicate agreement worked out mostly by former USWNT assistant Lauren Gregg. Chinese players went 1-2-3 which put the New York Power on the clock.

Power coach Pat Farmer wanted Gao, but he also knew that every other team already had a goalkeeper so his plan was to take Norwegian forward Dagny Mellgren and use his second round pick on Gao. But league officials interceded. The Power eventually relented and took Gao at No. 4. Mellgren went No. 5 to the Breakers. The Power used their next pick on Jen Lalor (now Jen Nielsen), who contributed little in two seasons before moving to San Diego.

As luck would have it, Mellgren going to Boston teamed her up with Maren Meinert ,and for three seasons that duo formed one of the most magical tandems seen in women’s pro soccer on these shores. And that is the story of how Gao Hong became a first round pick.

Current Draft order

Here is the 2018 NWSL Draft order as of 9 a.m. EST on January 17:

1st Round
1. Washington Spirit
2. Boston Breakers
3. Washington Spirit
4. Sky Blue FC
5. Sky Blue FC
6. Houston Dash
7. Chicago Red Stars
8. Portland Thorns FC
9. Portland Thorns FC
10. North Carolina Courage

2nd Round
11. Washington Spirit
12. Houston Dash
13. Chicago Red Stars
14. Utah Royals FC
15. Sky Blue FC
16. Washington Spirit
17. Boston Breakers
18. Chicago Red Stars
19. Chicago Red Stars
20. North Carolina Courage

3rd Round
21. Washington Spirit
22. Boston Breakers
23. Orlando Pride
24. Houston Dash
25. Sky Blue FC
26. Washington Spirit
27. Chicago Red Stars
28. Houston Dash
29. Chicago Red Stars
30. Houston Dash

4th Round
31. Washington Spirit
32. Boston Breakers
33. Houston Dash
34. Utah Royals FC
35. Sky Blue FC
36. Seattle Reign FC
37. Chicago Red Stars
38. North Carolina Courage
39. North Carolina Courage
40. North Carolina Courage

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