Draft day has emerged as one of the most popular days on the NWSL calendar, and this year’s edition is ripe with some of the most intriguing story lines we have seen. There seems to be little secret as to the identity of the No. 1 pick, but once the Thorns use it on Emily Sonnett as expected, it’s anyone’s best guess after that. And adding more intrigue to the puzzle is Hermann winner Raquel Rodriguez. One NWSL coach told me Rodriguez is the best player in the draft, but the Costa Rican is just one of several potential high picks that will require clubs to burn an international spot to sign.
Let’s consider some of the following factors regarding the five picks that immediately follow No. 1. Once the Thorns make Sonnett official they will be right back on the clock with the No. 2 pick. After dangling the pick to be traded, it is now believed the Thorns are zeroing in on a player to take. The club has enjoyed a strong offseason during which the roster has been reshaped following a season of discontent. With Lindsay Horan expected to be added via trade after the allocation announcement is made, the Thorns are deep and experienced.
“Looking at their roster I couldn’t even tell you what position he would really feel like he would need with that second pick,” a rival coach said of the Thorns’ roster. That fact will leave options open for new coach Mark Parsons. Earlier scuttlebutt that they would select Cari Roccaro to pair with Sonnett in central defense has lost momentum of late. A more popular theory is Makenzy Doniak, Sonnett’s teammate at Virginia and widely considered the best forward in the draft. Parsons would have the option of bringing Doniak along slowly and hope she is up to the task when Olympic absences kick in. The Thorns also have international slots available putting them in play for Rodriguez.
Sky Blue owns the third pick but has had a vacancy sign on the door of the coach’s office since the middle of October. Christy Holly has been making the soccer decisions in New Jersey and may well become the next head coach, but the absence of a permanent fixture makes handicapping the club’s intentions quite difficult. The needs are far and wide though with little to no offseason roster improvement and the real possibility of Caitlin Foord and Samantha Kerr missing most of the season if Australia qualifies for the Olympics and calls the players into residency. Foord and Kerr are both injured as well. There have also been whispers that Sky Blue could move the No. 3 pick.
Katie Bowen is a versatile defender with a North Carolina pedigree that could ease the blow of losing left back Cami Levin to the expansion draft, but Bowen will cost an international spot. Closer to home, Brianne Reed and Erica Skroski paired at center back for Rutgers’ defensive-led run to the College Cup.
The Reign hold the fourth pick, a superb roster, and an international spot. That adds up to the strongest position the club has ever held heading to an NWSL draft. So which way will they go?
“It’s year four now where you can think more longer term,” Harvey said while admitting she was overwhelmed by the draft process when she first came to NWSL. “We don’t necessarily need somebody who’s going to impact the team from day one. We just need somebody that we think could get on the field and do well for us if need be. That’s a luxury that’s great to have. I think if you look around the league a lot of people are in that position now. That’s maybe a little bit of a different direction for the league now.”
My gut tells me that Harvey won’t let Rodriguez get past her. If she is off the board then Bowen or Carson Pickett could be brought in as the heir apparent at left back. Stephanie Cox’s retirement left some big shoes to fill there. Harvey indicated that she is not shopping the pick and the Reign are in a similar position as the Thorns with a crowded roster and likely not much to spend beyond what a newly drafted player would command.
The Dash hold the hammer in the middle of the round with the fifth and sixth picks. And Randy Waldrum has candidly said, “I’m being honest about it, we need a player in every line still. That’s not trying to hide things, that’s the truth of where we are. We’ve got to improve all three of our lines plus our (backup) goalkeeper in order to be where we want to be.”
Waldrum also sounded like a coach who was not prepared to use an international selection on a draft pick. But when asked about Rodriguez the coach said he would be surprised if she were on the board when he picks at No. 5. Would he be enticed to take a stab at her if she slips through the cracks?
Roccaro has been linked to the Dash because of her Notre Dame ties and Waldrum’s propensity for selecting players he is familiar with. If she is there, she could turn into the center back rock the club has been seeking since joining the league (Whitney Engen, an allocation in their expansion season, played less than half the season.)
As it stands the Dash can fly home after making the sixth pick. But they could trade back into the lower rounds especially if the right goalkeeper is on the board. Erin McLeod has left for Sweden leaving Bianca Henninger as the only keeper on the Dash roster. Add to that the fact that Henninger was recently called in with Mexico and could feasibly leave for the Olympics if Mexico surprises and she makes the roster.
“I think she’s good enough that I think she could start for half the teams in the league,” Waldrum said of Henninger. “We would be very comfortable with Bianca as our keeper.”
By the time the Dash picks are done and gone, the Spirit will be on the board and many draft boards will be blown to bits. There is already expected to be another trade at the end of the 1st round with the No. 10 pick widely reported to be heading to Orlando in a trade that will land Horan in Portland. Last year’s draft included several major contributors in the second round and beyond. An informal survey of coaches around the league hints that they don’t expect as deep a draft this year but that the top of the class should be quite good.
“There’s a middle group there that’s kind of blossoming a little bit,” Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said. “Kind of sleepers that if given an opportunity can come in and make a roster and get some minutes.”
This will be the 10th season of pro women’s soccer in the United States and the 11th draft. Jim Gabarra has been a head coach for all of them including the 2012 WPS draft which was one of the last hurrahs before that league closed down. I asked him if the relative stability of NWSL altered his draft strategy to something more long-term.
“Unfortunately I’ve always had that attitude,” Gabarra admitted. “Maybe that’s my fault. But I’ve always picked players to invest in them and give them time to develop and then be really good for the club. I’ve never looked at it like this is the last draft. I never let that creep into my thought process. I’d be lying if I ever said I had that feeling and now all of a sudden it’s changed.”
True to form, the man who used the No. 2 pick in the 2002 WUSA draft on Abby Wambach, said: “I’m actually happy with seven and twelve. There are a couple of players that I anticipated registering and being first round picks that have decided not to register and not to play so that overall number where I’d be happy to get players came down a little bit. But I think at seven and twelve we’ll get two decent players.”
And while Gabarra may have always drafted with his eyes on the future, he sees real stability in NWSL. “I think it’s good to have players returning from Europe to play. It is extremely stable and it is very encouraging the direction and that the league and the game is going.”
-Havana Solaun, the 15th player taken in the 2015 draft, missed her entire rookie season after taking an injury in pre-season. Solaun is currently rehabbing in Florida and according to Reign coach Laura Harvey, will be ready to be a full participant when preseason begins.
-Jamie Goldberg of The Oregonian caught up with Thorns coach Mark Parsons who offered some insight into the club’s strategy ahead of the draft. Read the story here.
-Sources indicated to The Equalizer this week that Christie Rampone is preparing to play the 2016 season for Sky Blue even if she is not healthy enough, or wanted, to play for the United States at the Olympics. The thinking is consistent with what Rampone said immediately after the World Cup when she indicated she would play at least one more season for the club.
-The Flash are also without a coach as the draft approaches. As I reported last week via Twitter, the club hopes to have a coach in place in time for the draft but will not rush the process to meet a deadline. Technical Director Charlie Naimo is at the helm of the roster-building process.
-For the first time, Rory Dames and the Red Stars find themselves as championship contenders entering the draft. Dames has done wonders at the draft over the years and will need to reach a bit this year with no pick until No. 19. “There are definitely players of value at the positions where we pick,” he said. “We always look for a few diamonds in the rough. We took the first years to really build the club up. Now it’s a little more specific in looking for certain weaknesses as opposed to in the past we just had to get some of the best players we could. So it will be a little bit different this year.”
-If you’re in or near Baltimore and considering attending the draft, I highly recommend it.
-As reported by Jeff Kassouf, Mexico is no longer a partner in NWSL in that they will not fund player contracts in 2016. The move is neither a surprise nor a great loss for the league. Mexico’s involvement at the league’s launch was seen as a boon to early survival, but the federation clearly soured on the concept after one season and cut allocations each of the next two. Last season none of the allocated players ever reported to their teams even after the World Cup and Pan Am Games. Looking at where NWSL and the Federation of Mexican Football are today compared to when the partnership was struck in 2012 it is clear who came out ahead. The league appears on its way to sustainability while the Mexican women–who beat the United States in World Cup qualifying two years prior–have taken a huge step backwards including a dreadful performance at last year’s World Cup. NWSL will be a better place if the best Mexican players are drawn to play in it, but the lack of funding will not be missed.
-Here’s my top 5: 1) Thorns – Emily Sonnett; 2) Thorns – Makenzy Doniak; 3) Sky Blue – Raquel Rodriguez; 4) Reign – Carson Pickett; 5) Dash – Carrie Roccaro
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