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The Lowdown: Draft Day turns NWSL on its ear

(Photo: NWSL)

The 2016 NWSL college draft was filled with announcements, trades and speculation. (Photo: NWSL)

BALTIMORE, Md. — One of the staples of NSCAA Convention week is the women’s coaches’ social the night before the NWSL draft. And one of the staples of the coaches’ social is the inevitable scuttlebutt that something crazy could be in store the following morning. This time around the reality more than lived up to the speculation.

The Thorns set the tone for the draft months earlier when they acquired the No. 1 overall pick in the trade that sent Alex Morgan to expansion team Orlando Pride followed by grabbing the No. 2 pick from the Breakers for McCall Zerboni and Sinead Farrelly. That meant new coach Mark Parsons arrived in Baltimore with hammer in hand, and he proved more than willing to wield his weapon.

It was never a secret that the No. 1 pick would be Emily Sonnett. A strong, central defender from Virginia, Sonnett was unable to attend the draft because she is in camp with the United States national team for who she was capped for the first time during the Victory Tour. “A special talent and a fantastic person off the field,” according to Parsons. Sonnett figures to jump right in next to Kat Williamson to form the Thorns’ center back pairing.

If the first pick was obvious the second pick was anything but. It was well known the Thorns had shopped the No. 2 pick around, but the consensus heading to Baltimore was that Parsons was zeroing in on a player to pick. The most common theory was Sonnett’s Virginia teammate Makenzy Doniak.

Enter Sky Blue FC. The New Jersey club has had a somnambulant offseason, but behind the scenes they had set their sights on Raquel Rodriguez since October. The Hermann Trophy winning midfielder was called the best player in the draft by more than one coach but came with the caveat of being from Costa Rica, meaning whoever signed her would have to use an international roster spot.

“We realized that if we were able to move up in the draft and establish the second pick it would pretty much guarantee us Raquel Rodriguez,” said Christy Holly who was named Sky Blue’s head coach two days before the draft but had been largely in charge of the personnel since Jim Gabarra resigned in October.

By Thursday afternoon it was apparent the Thorns and Sky Blue were deep in trade talks that would allow Sky Blue to move into the coveted No. 2 slot and guarantee themselves Rodriguez. The trade was announced early Friday morning. To make it happen, Sky Blue sent Portland the rights to dynamic forward Nadia Nadim. The teams flipped the second and third picks, and Sky Blue also acquired the Thorns first round pick in 2017.

“At this point, it looks like a very, very talented player pool coming through the college ranks,” Holly said of the 2017 draft.

On the Nadim front, Holly said: “There were different things going on that we needed to take care of,” but opted not to expand. It is believed that Nadim requested to be traded if she were going to remain in NWSL.

Holly was also asked if the genesis of the trade was that the Thorns were going to grab Rodriguez or that someone else was preparing a trade package to leapfrog Sky Blue. “It was a little bit of both. I knew that if they were going to hold on to it they were definitely going to pick her up at No. 2. If they wanted to move on the No. 2 pick it would have been to a couple of teams who had a very high interest in Raquel.

“She was priority number one once we realized what we had to do. She became our main target in the draft. Her ability and her personality on and off the field is something that we’re very excited about.”

Sky Blue later added goalkeeper Caroline Casey making them the only team to draft two NSCAA First Team All Americans. In between they nabbed forward Leah Galton and defender Erica Skroski, both from the Second Team. Galton is English but the club says they have assurances she intends to play in NWSL, and Skroski played her college soccer for Rutgers on Sky Blue’s home pitch Yurcak Field.

The Thorns’ only other pick was McKenzie Berryhill at No. 21.

And with the third pick…

The Thorns still walked into the draft room with the first and third picks and plenty of leverage. They wound up moving the No. 3 pick in a trade that indirectly turned into the most talked about element of the weekend. Only minutes before opening the proceedings, NWSL sent out a release detailing—or outlining—a new mechanism for incoming allocated players. A list was established based on the previous season’s order of finish and that list now stands as the priority order for securing the services of incoming allocations. The hot takes were still rolling in when the Thorns went to work.

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush went to the podium and announced another trade. The Thorns traded the No. 3 pick to the Boston Breakers in exchange for the No. 1 position in the allocation order. The target? Mallory Pugh, a 17-year old currently in U.S. national team camp who is preparing to sign a full professional contract and join the Thorns. Folks in the draft room were buttoned up about the move which is not yet official and may not be until later in the year.

The Breakers used the No. 3 pick on defender Christen Westphal.

More on the Breakers

The Breakers wound up with Westphal even as it appeared an attacking player may have been the more prudent addition. With later picks they selected Brittany Ratcliffe and then traded up to take coveted goalkeeper Abby Smith who should jump right into the 20-woman roster.

For more on the Breakers’ day, check out this piece from The Bent Musket.

Rest of the first round

No. 4 – The Reign stayed quiet and took Carson Pickett who can challenge for the left back spot and also play in midfield. They later grabbed Summer Green, the North Carolina standout who tore her ACL in November. Reign coach Laura Harvey said Green was a pick aimed at 2017.

No. 5, 6, 8 – The Dash took a risk at No. 5 taking Cari Roccaro who recently had hip surgery. Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie followed. Coach Randy Waldrum spoke about his draft and Daly spoke to The Equalizer about why she is playing in the NWSL.

No. 7 – The Spirit filled a need by taking forward Cheyna Williams from Florida State and followed that up with another forward, Cali Farquarson at No. 12. They later added Alli Murphy, goalkeeper Madalyn Schiffel, and Kara Wilson.

No. 9 – Michaela Hahn to the Flash was probably the most surprising pick in the opening round especially with Doniak still on the board. But the Flash wound up with Doniak anyway, nabbing her with the first pick of the second round (No. 11). They took another forward at No. 14, Mallory Webber from national champion Penn State. In the third round they took Laura Liedle and then in a mild surprise, made Britt Eckerstrom the first keeper off the board at No. 26.

No. 10 – The Pride finally got involved at the end of the first round and made defender Sam Witteman the franchise’s first ever draft pick. Their other two picks were Christina Burkenroad at No. 15 and Dani Weatherholt at No. 31.

Not in the first round…

FC Kansas City – draft day was so unusual that Vlatko Andonovski was forced to pass on a player he had been eyeing as a mid-second round pick since last summer. The reason? Katie Bowen fell into his lap at No. 16 as did Brianne Reed at No. 18. Andonovski said he expected both to go in the first round.

bowen

New Zealander Katie Bowen was selected 16th overall by FC Kansas City. (Photo: Goheels.com)

The catch was Bowen, a New Zealander who will take an international roster spot and who up until about 48 hours before the draft looked to be heading overseas. But the FC Kansas City brain trust got late word of Bowen’s intentions to play in NWSL and did not hesitate to take her. The pick was not a total freebie though. Having dealt away their final international spot last week, the Blues circled back band acquired another one from the Red Stars for their second round pick in 2017.

Kansas City’s other picks were Alexa Newfield and Alex Arlitt.

Chicago Red Stars – what the Red Stars lacked in top-flight power they made up for with quantity. Rory Dames engineered two trades, sending a third round pick to the Breakers and another to Sky Blue. In exchange he took two fourth round picks from both giving the Red Stars five of the ten picks in the final round.

The Red Stars’ top pick was Katie Naughton at No. 19 making them the last team to get involved. They got Sarah Gorden in the third round (No. 22) and then nearly monopolized the fourth with Courtney Raetzman (32), Jannelle Flaws (33), Adrienne Jordan (35), Candace Johnson (36), and Ashleigh Ellenwood (39).

Free Kicks

Direct

— Rory Dames said he is more than confident going into the season with the central defense pairing of Julie Johnston and Samantha Johnson. That became the choice pairing after the Red Stars dealt Abby Erceg to the Flash and then flipped Whitney Engen to the Breakers for Alyssa Naeher.

“When we looked back and looked over the analytics of the goals we’ve given away and the number of chances we have conceded plus the number of goals we’ve scored when those two were on the field together, it was a little bit eye opening,” Dames told me prior to the draft. “So it made the decision a little bit easier. They complement each other very well. Julie is a very good leader on the back line. She organizes the line and gives information. And Sammy’s a worker. So Julie stays step, Sammy steps. Julie says drop, Sammy drops. It just made sense.”

Dames said that when he looked back at the data following the season he was not surprised but went as far as to suggest he maybe should have moved Johnson up the depth chart at some point during last season.

— The Pride are not expecting Taryn Hemmings to play this season. The expansion draft selection is planning to retire from playing, according to Orlando coach Tom Sermanni.

— Technical director Charlie Naimo handled the draft for the Flash who remain without a head coach since Aaran Lines stepped down late in 2015. The club wanted to make a hire before the draft but elected to wait it out in the hopes of getting the decision right. The Flash have undergone intense roster turnover of late with no players remaining from the 2014 club.

— Jim Gabarra has been a head coach for every women’s professional soccer draft and he marveled over the size and breadth of this one only three years after the first NWSL event was held “in a closet.” That might have been an exaggeration, but only slightly according to my media friends who were there and so shut off from the live action they were learning about the picks via Twitter just like everyone else.

Indirect

— I’ll echo Jim Gabarra here. The draft was fantastic. Gabarra, in fact, was part of the highlight when Spirit Squadron members serenaded him ahead of the club’s first round pick. Commissioner Jeff Plush was also a target of some of the squadron’s singing. But it was just the type of energy that helped make the day feel like the significant event that it was. And there is no match for being in the room and seeing the raw emotion from players after hearing their names called.

— The Mallory Pugh news is not yet official but the opinions are coming fast and furious. Here’s mine. Even though the United States won the World Cup it was glaringly obvious that just about every other country is pulling ahead in terms of developing players at young ages. Making a move to fast track Pugh, or any other worthy teenager, into a full national team contract only makes sense. In the short term, I am a bit skeptical that enough new allocations will come into the league to make the entirety of the new order all that important, but it also feels like this is the first step toward expanding rosters and possibly installing some sort of program to mirror the Homegrown initiative used by Major League Soccer. I believe we will look back on the day and realize that even if NWSL bungled the announcement as usual, it was the most significant development since the launch of the league in 2012.

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