Friday’s NWSL College Draft featured one of the most talented classes of college players ever to vie for the pro ranks. Of the 36 spots, a quarter of those were filled by players from the U.S. U-20 squad that won the World Cup in 2012. Unfortunately, Canada offered eight players from their U-20 tournament roster, with all but one, Nkem Ezurike, turned away. Versatility was in high demand on draft day as a number of teams placed a premium on players who excelled at more than one position throughout their collegiate careers, such as Crystal Dunn, Amanda Frisbie and Julie Johnston.
Here’s a look at how we assessed each team’s needs, picks and overall performance in the draft:
Nkem Ezurike (F) Michigan
Natasha Anasi (D) Duke
Jazmine Reeves (F) Virginia Tech
Mollie Pathman (D/M/F) Duke
Kim DeCesare (F/D) Duke
Jami Kranich (GK) Villanova
Boston’s primary need going into the draft was offense and they did well, drafting two dynamic players who could potentially make a huge impact for their front line. Nkem Ezurike, a 5-foot-11-inch Canadian international, is both fast and strong with the ability to use either of those qualities to create dangerous opportunities. In spite of her size, though, Ezurike isn’t just a one-dimensional weapon, as she’s got great technique and accuracy on her shots with the ability to be explosive and graceful at virtually the same time. Jazmine Reeves is a burner with exceptional fitness, but she’s also a cool and composed finisher, especially on the counter. Both players routinely shredded defenses on the college level.
Kranich, a past member of the U-20 national team and a four-year starter at Villanova, fills a need for the Breakers after the team traded backup ‘keeper Michelle Betos. Betos was sent to Portland during the draft in exchange for an additional fourth round pick as well as a second round pick in 2015.
The rest of the Breakers’ draftees all hail from Duke University. Both DeCesare and Pathman have the potential to plug in at different positions for the Breakers and may help fill out a defense that lost several members in the offseason, including Jo Dragotta (waivers), Rhian Wilkinson (not allocated) and Meghan Klingenberg (expansion draft).
Although both played on the front line for the Blue Devils, DeCesare is more likely to see time further up the field for Boston. Tall, lean and mean, she’s a beast in the air and finished her Duke career ranked sixth on the program’s all-time goal leader chart. DeCesare could be a real steal considering that all Boston gave up to acquire her was a lackluster backup keeper. Pathman can play anywhere up the left flank, having converted from a left winger to a left back in her junior season, and she gets a wicked service in from the sideline. In Anasi, Boston picks up a very athletic centerback that plays much larger than her 5-foot-6 frame.
Overall Draft Grade: B+
Chicago Red Stars
Julie Johnston (M/D) Santa Clara
Vanessa DiBernardo (M) Illinois
Hayley Brock (F) Maryland
Chicago may have only had three selections in the draft, but the Red Stars certainly made them count. After the draft, head coach Rory Dames commented that DiBernardo and Johnston will be the spine of the team’s midfield for years to come. Considering that both of these players have already caught the eye of U.S. national team coach Tom Sermanni, it’s hard not be excited by this prospect if you’re a Red Stars fan.
Johnston’s versatility and leadership abilities should easily earn her a spot on the opening day roster, most likely as a holding mid. The Santa Clara alum can also move up as either an attacking mid, an outright forward, or drop back to fill the centerback position as she did when she captained the U-20 national team to the World Cup in 2012. Johnston has a commanding physical presence on the field with a powerful shot from distance. In the box, she’s got excellent aerial prowess on set pieces, often out-muscling or out-jumping defenders to get her head on the end of a cross, and Johnston won’t hesitate to put herself in harm’s way to earn a goal.
The best outright attacking midfielder in the class, DiBernardo completes the circle of having played high school, college and now pro all in her home state. Despite missing a chunk of 2012 with the U-20 national team and several games in 2013 with a knee injury, DiBernardo still leaves the Fighting Illini ranked as their all-time assists leader with 22 and their third-highest goalscorer with 43.
In Brock, the Red Stars add a player who will help round out their offense while they wait for Christen Press and Melissa Tancredi to join the team mid-season. Brock’s speed and power could be a nice complement to Adrianna Leon’s pace and technical ability. Brock managed 12 goals for the Terrapins as a senior despite lacking a consistent strike partner and may end up being more valuable to the Red Stars than she appears on paper.
Although they only had three picks in a stocked draft pool, Chicago’s trade with Portland for Karina LeBlanc is well worth the 2015 second-round pick they gave up for her. Chicago comes out of the draft a much more well-rounded team.
Overall Draft Grade: B+
Kealia Ohai (F) North Carolina
Rafaelle Souza (F) Ole Miss
Marissa Diggs (D) Central Florida
Jordan Jackson (M) Nebraska
Already a bit top-heavy with four forwards and only three midfielders going into the draft, Houston continued to wheel-and-deal as draft day approached. With forward Kealia Ohai’s No. 2 pick a foregone conclusion, Houston boomeranged plucky expansion draft selection Mana Shim back to Portland in exchange for the second pick in the second round.
Considering the bevy of forwards available in this year’s draft, Houston might have been better served by taking an offensive-minded midfielder with the 10th overall pick in the draft. With consecutive picks to open the round, though, Houston started by grabbing yet another attacker: Rafaelle Souza from Ole Miss. She’s Brazilian, so there’s plenty of flair and wizardry on tap with Souza. A left back in the Brazilian national team pool, she scored 22 goals as a senior to finish third in Division I while her career totals of 44 goals and 107 points are all-time bests in both categories for the Rebels despite only playing three seasons in Oxford.
With their next pick, the Dash drafted Texas-native Marissa Diggs, adding another centerback to the tandem of Mexican international Ari Romero and Whitney Engen: A somewhat shocking choice when you consider former Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum passed over his star midfielder Mandy Laddish.
With the first pick in the fourth round, Houston finally chose a midfielder in Nebraska’s Jordan Jackson. The Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, Jackson’s got a feisty, battling edge to her and good speed running at the defense. She should add some much-needed attacking bite and width on the right of midfield.
As it stands, Houston is still heavy on forwards and, although the midfield has excellent quality, it’s still very short on depth. It’s uncertain what formation Waldrum will try, having favored the 4-3-3 with Notre Dame, but, four midfielders won’t be enough, regardless. Houston likely has a few cards left to play, but you only have to look as far as Kansas City to see the midfield quality they ignored.
Overall Draft Grade: B
FC Kansas City
Kassey Kallman (D) Florida State
Morgan Marlborough (F) Santa Clara
Jenna Richmond (M) UCLA
Frances Silva (F/M) West Virginia
Mandy Laddish (M) Notre Dame
Maegan Kelly (F/M) Marquette
Heading into the draft, the Blues needed midfield prospects and they scored a star-studded lineup, while adding some key ingredients to both the top and tail of their spine. Amazingly, they did it by selecting almost all homegrown talent from the bountiful metropolitan Kansas City area.
KC’s first order of business was to secure the draft’s best centerback, Kassey Kallman, as their fifth overall selection. Kallman’s got plenty of size and strength for her position, making her a formidable obstacle for any forward in a one-on-one situation, but she also possesses surprising covering speed in the defensive zone while her flank players are upfield. The real boon, though, is that Florida State typically runs a possession-oriented style of play, so Kallman is already comfortable in a system with patient build-up and distribution beginning in the backfield. Her confidence under pressure is superb, demonstrating excellent decision-making with her footwork and with the pass when getting out of sticky situations.
With the No. 12 pick, the Blues snagged Santa Clara’s Morgan Marlborough. The Lee’s Summit, Mo., native is a large target forward with a powerful strike and a combative, attacking attitude. Maybe a bit overrated at this spot, Marlborough lacks in speed and finesse compared with the other forwards in this class, but with A-Rod, Henderson and Loyd ahead of her, you get the feeling that the Blues lacked a little bit in size and brute strength. As a blunt attacking weapon, she’ll give their offense a much different look.
Four spots later, the Blues picked the first of four midfield draftees: UCLA’s Jenna Richmond. To open the third round, they grabbed Frances Silva from Overland Park, Kan., and Mandy Laddish, another Lee’s Summit product. Surprisingly, KC’s own Maegan Kelly from Marquette was still on the table near the end of the draft and the Blues gladly snatched her as the 35th pick, a surprising spot for the highly-rated midfielder.
All four players are a fully-functioning all-star midfield unto themselves. Richmond and Laddish, each a national champion at their respective colleges, played both holding- and attacking-mid positions for their schools, often times changing fluidly within the game. Both are intelligent, shrewd and composed on the ball. Either one can partner with destroyer Jen Buczkowski in the back, or replace Holiday and Tymrak while they’re on international duty. Kelly tended toward the left with Marquette and Silva worked the right flank for the Mountaineers, so both can add instant width to the midfield.
Overall Draft Grade: A
Emily Menges (D) Georgetown
Elisabeth Sullivan (F) Mississippi State
The Thorns made a late trade with Boston for Michelle Betos, giving up the 34th pick in the draft, which ultimately ended up being Kim DeCesare, and their second-round pick in 2015. In exchange, Portland gained a back-up for Nadine Angerer, but can Betos fill the German’s Ballon d’Or shoes while the she’s away with the national team? Portland also sacrificed their first pick of the draft at the 11 spot to get back Mana Shim, a player they lost just a week earlier in the expansion draft, back from Houston when they could’ve picked up goalkeeper Kelsey Wys and foregone the Betos deal. Riley said afterwards that no player available at No. 11 could’ve compared to Shim, a fan-favorite in Portland, but looking down the list, we’re inclined to disagree. Riley also seems happy with Betos as an understudy that will definitely see action this year. We’ll let history be the judge of that one, but, again, given that they could’ve had a stonewall in goal from one of the country’s stingiest defenses over the last few years, it doesn’t seem likely.
To their credit, Menges, something of an adventurous attacking centerback, is a fantastic pickup in the third round. She developed in Riley’s Albertson Fury youth system and was no doubt a target of the new coach. Probably the second-best centerback in the draft, to find her at the No. 25 spot was a stroke of luck and possibly their only solid move of the draft. Elisabeth Sullivan, a high-scoring forward from SEC cellar-dwellers Mississippi State, will be a dark horse to break into Portland’s offense.
Overall Draft Grade: C
Seattle Reign FC
Amanda Frisbie (F/D) Portland
Megan Brigman (D) North Carolina
Ellen Parker (M) Portland
Seattle is becoming the Northern campus of the University of Portland with the Reign picking up Frisbie and Parker, making it potentially seven former Pilots that could suit up for the Thorns’ regional rivals this season. On paper, Seattle are thin on the frontline and in the midfield, but opted to take one converted defender and another outright defender with their first two picks.
Amanda Frisbie’s draft stock skyrocketed as a senior for UP this past year. Coming off a 2012 season in which she led her team in goals, points and assists, Frisbie made the difficult transition from front to back, filling the centerback role for the Pilots in her final year. She didn’t just fill the position, though, she commanded it, taking home the WCC Defensive Player of the Year award as well as NSCAA First-Team All-American accolades.
It didn’t stop Frisbie from scoring, either, as she still found a way to net six from the back — good enough for second-best on the team. At 5-foort-8-inches, she’s got plenty of height to play either position with outstanding speed to boot. With such versatility, Frisbie should be able to find a spot on the Reign roster.
More puzzling, though, was the choice of UNC’s Megan Brigman, the second central defender taken by the Reign. Chosen as the 17th overall pick at a point when Emily Menges was still on the table, Brigman probably had a decent shot of getting drafted eventually, yet somehow soared to second-round status in the Reign’s eyes. Brigman is a hard-as-nails, tough-tackling defender who can cover acres of space in the backfield with her outstanding speed and endurance, so she’s got pro potential. However, Hope Solo is still without an understudy, so it remains to be seen how the Reign will address that need. Hopefully they have something up in the works if they passed on FSU ‘keeper Kelsey Wys to take Brigman.
Parker is a decent fourth-round pick from Portland and was third on her team in goals this season (behind Frisbie), but, with Maegan Kelly of Marquette yet to be chosen and the highly-rated, undrafted Nicholette DiGiacomo still floating around, she may not have been the best available midfield option at that point.
Overall Draft Grade: B-
Sky Blue FC
Maya Hayes (F) Penn State
Hayley Haagsma (D) Texas Tech
Elizabeth Eddy (F) USC
Michelle Pao (F/D) Pepperdine
Sky Blue also lacked depth in their midfield and forward positions before the draft. For the sixth overall pick in the draft, they landed local product Maya Hayes — a slick, crafty, fleet-footed forward. Hayes had her best season in 2011 when she led the nation in goals (31) and points (70) as a sophomore to earn consideration as a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy. Hayes was part of the world champion U-20 team in 2012, then returned home to help lead PSU to the finals of the College Cup for the first time in school history.
For a team chock full of defenders, SBFC made an odd choice with their second-round draft of Hayley Haagsma from Texas Tech. As centerback for the Red Raiders, Haagsma anchored the second-best defense in the country in 2013, but it’s difficult to argue that she warranted a selection this high up in the pecking order, especially for a team that seemingly should have had other priorities.
In the third round they chose Pepperdine’s Michelle Pao, a speedy right back who, theoretically, could also fill in on the front line as she did in Malibu. For their final pick, it was Elizabeth Eddy, a forward from USC, getting her name called.
All-in-all, for such a talent-wealthy draft it became a rather unlikely cast after Hayes. Given that dynamic forwards such as Hayley Brock and Jazmine Reeves were still up for grabs when they chose under-the-radar defender Haagsma in the second round, then added forward Eddy in the fourth round, it seems they could have made more efficient use of their slots. Beyond Hayes and maybe Pao, these selections likely will only add some marginal depth off the bench, rather than compete for true starter roles.
Overall Draft Grade: C
Crystal Dunn (M/D) North Carolina
Molly Menchel (D) Virginia
Shasta Fisher (D) Virginia
For a team coming off a last-place finish and with only three picks, the Spirit had to maximize their selections. Dunn was an easy choice and adds incredible attacking power wherever they decide to play her. The Spirit added their fifth and sixth UVA players by drafting left back Menchel and centerback Fisher. Taking Menchel with their second pick in the draft meant they bypassed more accomplished defenders Annie Steinlage (also from Virginia) and Holly Hein (Michigan), settling for UVA center back Shasta Fisher in the final round. Menchel, a three-year starter at Virginia, will add depth to the left back position and, as she played with DC United Women and Spirit Reserves previously, the Alexandria, Va., native should feel right at home with the Spirit.
Washington added the experience of forward Tiffany Weimer by trading away another fourth-round pick to Portland. Odds are a number of fourth-round draftees won’t make opening day rosters, so the addition of a veteran forward and key supporting cast member from the Thorns instead is an understandable move.
Overall Grade: B
Western New York Flash
Courtney Verloo (F/D) Stanford
Cloee Colohan (M/D) BYU
Kelsey Wys (GK) Florida State
Annie Steinlage (M/D) Virginia
Kristen Hamilton (F) Denver
The Flash made great use of their five picks, adding excellent, versatile players in every position. With Alex Sahlen out for the season, it seemed likely that the Flash would take a left back in the draft. Western New York didn’t, but they did manage to secure several quality players in a number of key positions.
Verloo is a forward-turned-centerback-turned-forward again, so she’ll be useful to WNY in either spot. Although she didn’t have quite the senior season one would expect a late first-rounder to have, partly due to an off year in Palo Alto, the Stanford product has tremendous upside. She still led the team with nine goals, three of which came in a hat-trick against Santa Clara that featured a pair of devastating long-range free kicks.
Steinlage can play as either centerback or holding mid, having excelled at the former for Michigan State and the latter in her one season with Virginia. Colohan also played center back as a Pilot with Portland and midfield after she transferred to BYU, so WNY essentially picked up three players that can ably fill the central defender position. Colohan has a right-footed shot that could sink a battleship, so she and Carli Lloyd will be jockeying for the sniper award, but Colohan can defend., too
Player of the Year in three different conferences, Kristen Hamilton is small, fast and dynamic. The Denver forward could conceivably be a nice foil playing alongside Wambach, but it’s difficult to gauge her skills considering the marginal opposition Denver faced over that time. For the Flash, it’s a case of low risk versus high reward — if Hamilton makes the final roster cut, she could be one of the steals of the draft.
Kelsey Wys was clearly the best keeper that actually declared for the draft and she’ll be more than an adequate backup for Adrianna Franch. Whereas Franch is an intimidating, commanding presence in net, Wys has a calm demeanor that belies her intensity in goal. Wys likes to play high up the field with exceptional foot skills outside the box and she gets outstanding distance and accuracy on her kicks.
Overall Grade: B+
Because of the league’s international player restrictions, Canada left a large contingent on the table, especially attackers. Christabel Oduro from Memphis, Jenna Richardson of Oregon State and Louisville’s Christine Exeter (all very talented forwards) join goalkeeper Dayle Colpitts from Virginia Tech and Michigan defender Shelina Zadorsky as a number of Canada’s next-generation players standing on the outside looking in.
Mexico’s fantastic spark plug Charlyn Corral may have to work her on-field magic elsewhere, too. The Louisville midfielder was unable to entice a team to give up an international roster spot for her mesmerizing skills.
Of the domestic players, Saint Francis’ Tesa McKibben was a big name left to fend for herself. McKibben is the only player in collegiate history to ever win four Player of the Year awards in any conference. Over the course of that career, she scored 70 goals with 40 assists for a whopping 180 points (for comparison, Christen Press had 71 goals and 41 assists during her prolific career at Stanford) and her 54 points as a senior led all of Division I. Although she declared for the draft, her early indications were that she would look to continue her career in Europe’s pro ranks, so this wasn’t necessarily unexpected.
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CARY, N.C.— Paul Riley doesn’t regularly hear from North Carolina Courage...