Last Thursday, NWSL staff, media, players, and fans gathered in Los Angeles for an exhaustive four hour-plus session in which they chose 40 women, from a list of 206, who will get the chance to realize their dreams and become professional soccer players. The 2017 NWSL Draft featured trades, surprises, no-brainers, and a little bit of history made. Without knowing what trades and other roster moves are to come, not to mention which players successfully make the transition from college to pro, drafts are hard to judge right away, ultimately taking some time to see which moves come to fruition. However, nothing says we can’t try. Following is a ranked list, from best to worst, of all ten NWSL teams’ draft classes, based on how well each team fulfilled their needs.
#1 – FC Kansas City
Kansas City enters 2017 with fewer holes than they did in 2016 when a slew of retirements and pregnancies caused every line on the field to take a hit. However, some of those holes were never filled, leading to an uneven fourth season for the two-time champions. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski entered the draft with a clear plan, and from the looks of it, executed it perfectly.
Duke defender Christina Gibbons is as good a defender as any in the draft and along with late pick Rashida Beal, brings both speed and versatility to the defense. At the other end of the field, FCKC added attacking power with strikers Toni Payne and Stephanie Ribeiro. Their biggest steal of the draft comes in UVA midfielder Alexis Shaffer, who inexplicably fell to the third round. Shaffer is a technically gifted player who creates chances.
Defensively, KC will be glad for the added depth, allowing Yael Averbuch to return to her rightful place in the midfield. Gibbons will likely be in competition with Katie Bowen, although both are capable of playing either midfield or left back. The addition of two forwards does raise questions, given that both Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are expected to return, as is Shea Groom, who came into her own last season. However, after a year off, Rodriguez and Leroux may not be as effective as they once were, and Payne and Ribeiro provide options off the bench. Shaffer may end up offering the best return, as FCKC never replaced Lauren Holiday in midfield and need someone who can pull strings. FCKC does still need an eventual successor for Nicole Barnhart, but there are other ways to acquire goalkeepers.
#2 – Sky Blue FC
Many initially said Houston won the 2016 draft, but when the season was over it was clear that Sky Blue took that title, as several of their rookies were thrust into the starting lineup out of necessity and nearly took the team to the playoffs. They look to repeat this year after adding needed depth with another strong class.
Sky Blue used their first two picks on defenders Kayla Mills and Miranda Freeman, both out of 2016 champions USC, before picking up Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan in the third round, one of the best in a strong class of ‘keepers. Sheridan’s college teammate, midfielder Catrina Atanda is a local girl, while strikers Madison Tiernan and McKenzie Meehan, both of whom fell lower than anticipated, bulk up the attack.
Sheridan is a great grab for the team. She brings international experience and although occasionally prone to the odd error in decision-making, she should take the starting job from Caroline Casey and Caroline Stanley. A starting rookie goalkeeper isn’t an ideal situation for any club, but the team needed an upgrade between the posts. Sheridan has the added bonus of likely being allocated by Canada in the future. Mills is expected to plug in at fullback, allowing Kelley O’Hara to make full use of her attacking abilities, while Freeman could be used at centerback as a successor to Christie Rampone, or at defensive midfielder. Tiernan and Meehan offer depth at forward, which at the moment relies too often on an inconsistent and aging Natasha Kai. Still lacking is a strong central midfielder to allow Raquel Rodriguez to push into the attacking midfield role. Atanda is a creative attacking midfielder who can score from distance, but it’s uncertain yet as to whether she would be effective as a starter right off the bat. However, depth across the board was needed for Sky Blue, and they’ve established it.
#3 – Houston Dash
After making moves in the offseason to bulk up a leaky central defense, Houston enters the season with a strong group of starters on paper. They entered the draft with only two picks but traded a 2018 pick with Chicago for a third, looking to establish depth.
The Dash surprised everyone by taking Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell at no. 15. Campbell is pegged as a likely Hope Solo successor with big upside but struggles with consistency at times. They then snagged Canadian forward Nichelle Prince with their pick from Chicago before taking defender Erin Smith in the last round.
Given that the Dash have two strong keepers on their roster already, Campbell was an odd choice, particularly so early in the draft. However, word is that Lydia Williams may depart after this season, so this choice may make sense in the long run. The Dash have quite a lot of forwards on their roster but not all play as such, so Prince, who brings a strong work rate and international experience, adds depth, needed when Rachel Daly is gone for the Euros. Smith is probably their biggest steal as she adds defensive depth across the backline and comes from a strong group of Rutgers defenders. The Dash picks gain extra value in that Prince is confirmed to be allocated this year and Campbell is likely to be in the future.
#4 – Orlando Pride
As with any expansion team in their first year, the lack of depth hurt the Pride last season when injuries crippled them in the second half. With Alex Morgan in France for at least half the season and international returns uncertain, Orlando needs spots filled across the board. Unfortunately, they only had two late round picks with which to work.
Danica Evans from Colorado is a goalscorer who could help out in Morgan’s absence, but questions remain about her productivity at this level. The Pride then got a great steal in the last round with Nickolette Driesse, a talented attacking midfielder capable of playing deeper.
With McKenzie Meehan still on the board, one has to ask if she wouldn’t have been a better pick than Evans. However, the Pride did need depth at forward with their best striker out. Driesse is a fantastic pick who will probably immediately slot in somewhere in central midfield, depending on who else returns. The Pride’s midfield was one of their biggest problems last year. They could also use defensive depth as there is a huge drop-off in talent on the bench, but with only two picks, Tom Sermanni had to decide which holes to fill.
#5 – Chicago Red Stars
With the exception of a wide midfielder and perhaps defensive depth, the Red Stars enter 2017 with few holes as the majority of their young roster remains intact. Rory Dames actually traded away three of his draft picks for 2018 picks.
Michele Vasconcelos was first off the board after Chicago traded up for her, followed immediately by Morgan Proffitt. A strong attacker, Vasconcelos is listed as a striker but can also play in the midfield. Proffitt is a strong ball winner at central defense and can also slot in at defensive midfielder, although she lacks pace. Chicago would not have another pick until the end of the fourth round when they took another midfielder, Lauren Kaskie. The UCLA product fits Dames’ preference for hard workers.
Vasconcelos provides the most immediate need as a wide player will extend some shape to the Red Stars’ attack. Proffitt and Kaskie both offer depth in midfield and central defense, although there are questions as to whether Kaskie can make the jump to pro level. Chicago perhaps should have opted to bulk up their depth at outside back rather than centerback as there is a sharp drop-off without Arin Gilliland or Casey Short and they had the picks to do so. However, Dames is clearly stockpiling draft picks to use next year in case of expansion.
#6 – Washington Spirit
Between trades and injuries, Washington has holes across the board. Unfortunately, they had no picks until the end of the second round after trading them away.
The Spirit started their day by picking up Lindsey Agnew, a Canadian striker who is great one-v-one. They then acquired a familiar player, Spirit reserves center midfielder Meggie Dougherty-Howard, before taking Cameron Castleberry out of UNC with a late pick. Castleberry is a quick, solid winger but may find it hard to break onto the roster.
Agnew is probably as good a forward as most on the board at pick no. 19, although you could make arguments for one or two that could have been better choices, but the question is whether the Spirit need one. Although Crystal Dunn and Estefania Banini departed, Jim Gabarra still has plenty left to choose from out of a group that consistently rotated starters last year. Dougherty-Howard is probably a better fit and could be a replacement for Christine Nairn, but she may need time to adapt. If Gabarra returns to the 4-3-3 formation he preferred most of last season, both Dougherty-Howard and Castleberry will have a hard time getting minutes. Defensive depth is needed as well, with Ali Krieger gone and Caprice Dydasco injured; and with Kelsey Wys injured and uncertainty about Stephanie Labbe’s future on the team, they may have wanted to look at goalkeepers as well.
#7 – Seattle Reign FC
Seattle entered the draft with several needs, none more gaping than center midfield, although right back is a pressing concern as well. Laura Harvey has not utilized the draft as strongly as other coaches have, but she did make a move to trade a 2018 pick with Chicago for their no. 16 pick.
They started out taking Stanford centerback Maddie Bauer in the first round. Bauer is technically strong and can anchor a back line. Katie Johnson, a forward who had a phenomenal College Cup with champions USC, was drafted with the pick from Chicago. Seattle again went for the attack with Arielle Ship before looking to defense in the last round with Kristen McNabb out of UVA.
While both Bauer and McNabb bulk up central defense, the team could use at least one fullback on the bench, if not starting on the right side. After losing both Kim Little and Keelin Winters, although gaining Christine Nairn, it’s surprising the Reign went for strikers with Johnson and Ship. Johnson in particular had an average career at USC before scoring a brace in the 2016 championship and is probably not worth the first-round pick given up to acquire her. Given that these picks don’t necessarily fill their needs and combine that with Harvey’s poor success in developing draft talent in the past, the Reign are left looking elsewhere for their missing pieces.
#8 – Portland Thorns FC
Unlike many teams, Portland doesn’t need much on the roster that remains nearly intact from its 2016 Shield-winning team. Barring a major trade or retirement, their star-studded lineup will be hard to break into, and their bench proved their worth last year. That said, Mark Parsons did make some moves on draft day.
The Thorns started the day with UConn product Rachel Hill, a quick, lethal forward with a nose for goal. Surprising some, they then traded up with North Carolina, giving up two picks in order to take Savannah Jordan. She was probably the best forward in the draft but is expected to head to France. Portland made another trade in the third round, giving up two 2018 picks to Chicago and taking forward Tyler Lussi at no. 21. Lussi is an agile player who excels at slipping past defenders. Portland ended the draft by taking Caroline Flynn, an all-around midfielder, with the last pick.
Jordan could end up being a steal if she returns next year, and if any team can absorb a player going overseas, it’s Portland. That said, she still won’t be playing for them in 2017, and she would have brought some needed pace up top. Flynn is a serviceable midfielder but will be buried on the depth chart. While Hill and Lussi are both solid scorers, Portland could use defensive depth and would have been better served by taking a central defender.
#9 – Boston Breakers
After having the busiest offseason of any team so far, Boston came into the draft with seven draft picks, an astonishing four in the first round alone. They traded one second round pick to Chicago, leaving them with six players to patch up a team that is undergoing an overhaul from head to toe.
The Breakers went for the attack in the first round, taking midfielders Rose Lavelle and Morgan Andrews before taking strikers Ifeoma Onumonu and Margaret Purce. Lavelle is an outstanding prospect at any place in central midfield, while Andrews has struggled for consistency at attacking midfield but seemed to settle in her senior year. Purce and Onumonu both bring speed and athleticism. Boston then fell off the board until the fourth round, where they took USC goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme, a strong shot stopper and vocal leader, and another forward in Hayley Dowd, whose efficiency raises questions.
With so many high picks, Boston had every chance to win the draft. Lavelle and Andrews will likely slide right into the starting XI, replacing Louise Schillgard and building up a midfield that was nonexistent at times last year. Although Prudhomme or another goalkeeper of equal caliber probably could have been acquired elsewhere, she does provide a fairly strong backup option. Abby Smith’s recovery from injury is uncertain as of yet, and Libby Stout was serviceable but not outstanding. However, given that Boston already has a slew of forwards led by consistent scorer Natasha Dowie, taking three seems like overkill. The team has almost no depth on defense and is expected to be without starter and captain Whitney Engen. If even one forward was desired for depth, they still could have gotten both a center and outside defender.
#10 – North Carolina Courage
It would be easy to assume the reigning champions (RIP, Western New York Flash) aren’t in need of any roster tweaks, but that would be the wrong move. While their attack is top notch, the Courage struggled on defense at times and could use a few upgrades.
The Courage had the no. 2 pick and named Ashley Hatch, a pure goalscorer out of BYU who has already been capped by the senior USWNT. They followed up with Darian Jenkins, another forward who is currently recovering from a broken fibula. North Carolina native Claire Wagner, a physical centerback who is solid in the air, was drafted at the end of the second round, and the Courage finished the day with Jaycie Johnson, a highly efficient striker who had her second ACL surgery in December.
North Carolina drops largely because two of their picks are injured and unlikely to see the field in 2017. Unlike Portland, the Courage have more immediate needs, such as a stronger right back and more depth on defense. Jenkins would undeniably have been available at a later pick if they wanted. With the youth and efficiency of the Courage attack already in place, their picks would have been much better spent elsewhere.