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The Lowdown: Making sense of the nonsensical 2020 NWSL Draft

The 2020 NWSL match ball (Photo: Jeff Kassouf)

With a single comment, Arnim Whisler altered the entire vibe of the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League College Draft, held last Thursday at the Baltimore Convention Center. As media did some hand wringing over the lack of transparency surrounding the trading of allocation money, the Chicago Red Stars owner offered up an explanation from the board’s point of view.

“It can be used for a lot of reasons. I think there’s a misunderstanding that it can only be used, for instance, for player salaries,” Whisler said in a joint press conference last week with outgoing NWSL president Amanda Duffy. “There’s no doubt it will, often, be used for player salaries, but there are also mechanisms that you can use it in other ways to support the operator or the team.”

The problem was that nothing of that nature ever showed up in when the league announced the introduction of allocation money in October. It did, however, clear up the uncertainty about why teams like Whisler’s Red Stars and Sky Blue FC were taking on allocation money instead of trading it away. A short while later, more confirmation came our way indicating that trades of allocation money are actual cash transactions. So, teams which have added allocation money — apparently just the Red Stars and Sky Blue right now — will be able to spend that acquired money on players or certain internal expenses at no cost to themselves beyond whichever assets they traded away for the money. That part was more of a clarification, though. Spending allocation money on team expenses was either a recent addition or intentionally left out of the initial announcement.

I’ll direct you to read John Halloran’s piece for more context on allocation money. I’ll say this, though: If that money is going to be used strictly for salaries then it is imperative the numbers are released. If it is going to double as a way to pay the bills, then I can understand a desire to keep them under wraps. But I digress…

The new information about allocation money temporarily diverted attention from the second mega trade in the last three draft days. Two years ago, Sam Kerr, Christen Press, and Carli Lloyd all changed teams. This time, it was Mallory Pugh. The one-time U.S. Soccer wunderkind was dealt from the Washington Spirit to Sky Blue FC in exchange for four draft picks including the No. 4 overall and Sky Blue’s first-rounder in 2021.

But therein lies another issue with how the NWSL handles information. When the trade was announced, Pugh’s name was not mentioned. Instead Sky Blue acquired a “player to be named later.” This is because the league prefers to wait until all traded players have been contacted before making the announcement official.

I have full sympathies for how awkward and jarring it must be to be traded as a professional athlete. It is also an occupational hazard to sometimes find out you’ve been traded in the media. Keeping Pugh’s name out of the announcement only served to add confusion to the day. Instead of the talent on the livestream being able to analyze the deal, they were left to speculate and ignore.

Furthermore, leaving Pugh’s name out of the announcement actually led to more names being brought into it. The Spirit really had only three players that could have fetched the return in a trade that they got from Sky Blue. The chances of Andi Sullivan being moved were slim to none barring a direct request, a la Kealia Ohai. The only other player it could have been was Rose Lavelle.

All in all, Pugh always made the most sense, and not just because it was lightly teased in last week’s Lowdown that if the Spirit traded into the first round, it would likely be in a trade that included the 21-year-old. But Pugh has been slower to develop than most thought she would be. The 2019 Spirit made incredible strides and while Pugh was occasionally part of them, she was also injured and with the U.S. national team much of the time. Spirit head coach Richie Burke said he did not want to part with Pugh, but it was a trade that made sense for Washington.

Meanwhile, the Pugh deal moved Sky Blue closer to relevance and helped shove the disaster that was the 2019 draft to the back burner. Sky Blue has now added Pugh, McCall Zerboni, and Midge Purce to a roster that was probably not as bad as the team’s record indicated last year. But it is notable that Zerboni’s teams have played in as many NWSL Championships (five) as Sky Blue won games in 2019.

“She’s a tremendous player,” LaHue said of Zerboni. “Obviously, [with] Rocky Rodriguez departing we had a big gap in the midfield we felt we needed to fill. To have an opportunity to get a player like McCall, who is absolutely phenomenal on the field but also brings a winning mentality, we feel that’s really important for us in the locker room.”

Leaving college for the pros is becoming more normal — at least for the elite

The Pugh trade was the last in a series of three that made for some of the most unique scenarios we have ever seen at the NWSL draft. And we have allocation money to thank for it. That’s how the Red Stars were able to persuade Sky Blue to move down from the Nos. 2 and 3 slots to Nos. 4 and 5. And yet, all the Red Stars did with their higher picks was flip them to Portland Thorns FC and the Orlando Pride, respectively. In return, the Red Stars received Rachel Hill, the No. 15 and 16 picks, and the Pride’s first-round pick in 2021. Oh, and allocation money from both.

A quick glance might seem as if the Red Stars gave away what was once five first-round picks with little to show for it. But as teams gobbled up attacking player after attacking player, the Red Stars used the two picks acquired from the Thorns to grab Julia Bingham and Camryn Biegalski, who Rory Dames said were the top two defenders on his draft board. Dames also finished off his usual practice of stockpiling future draft picks. The Red Stars currently have four first-round picks next year — their own plus the Pride’s, Reign’s and Royals’ (the Red Stars have no second-round pick).

It may seem odd that the Red Stars traded up and out while Sky Blue traded down and then landed Pugh. Asked if the Spirit held out for Sky Blue to keep the 2nd or 3rd pick for the trade, Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue said she was in the middle of signing paperwork for the first trade when the Spirit approached about the second. And as another team official told me later in the day, “All the teams got who they wanted.”

That means the Thorns wanted Morgan Weaver — which is obvious since they traded up for No. 2 and already had No. 1 which they used on Sophia Smith. The Thorns are attempting to do two things. One is to close the considerable gap that now exists between them and the North Carolina Courage. Two is to end a year-long issue of not getting enough scoring from their strikers. That was papered over more often than not, but when Lindsey Horan came back from the World Cup and struggled last season, the dearth of anyone to score was glaring.

The Thorns have also been tied to Paris Saint-Germain striker Kadidiatou Diani. Coach Mark Parsons confirmed the club is in the market for an international striker but stopped short of confirming any names, saying only that they’ve spoken with a French player and have their eyes on “world-class center backs.” Diani, combined with young talents Smith and Weaver, would be the start of a new day in Portland.

Bethany Balcer’s amazing 2019, and why the NWSL Draft is not a referendum

The Pride decided to take the jump to No. 3, having coveted Taylor Kornieck. It was an interesting move because the Pride had traded out of the No. 1 pick. But that hinged on the Thorns getting the pick and Smith declaring early.

“I don’t want to say [we’re] the cat that got the cream,” Pride coach Marc Skinner said, “but we were really happy with the fact that we got the opportunity to bring her to Orlando.”

As discussed last week, it is a pivotal offseason for the Pride ahead of an even more important season on the field. If Korniek was their top target all along, then they essentially traded next year’s first-round pick, Rachel Hill, and some allocation money plus the No. 26 pick for the Nos. 7 and 14 pick, Emily Sonnett, and the rights to Caitlin Foord.

The Pride used the 7th and 14th picks to shore up their defense, taking Virginia teammates Courtney Petersen and Phoebe McClernon. The Pride’s defense was woefully poor in 2020, giving up 53 goals in 24 games, and those picks plus Kornieck will go a long way toward determining if Skinner can get them into the middle of the table or higher.

The Spirit also nabbed their top target, Ashley Sanchez, at No. 4. And Sky Blue always had eyes for Evelyne Viens, who they took at No. 5.

In case you’re wondering, the other four teams participated in the draft as well. Many observers thought the Utah Royals got a steal when Tziarra King fell to them at No. 8. General manager Stephanie Lee suggested later that the Royals would be more of a fixture near the top of the draft than they had been in two years under Laura Harvey. It’s notable though, that they do not currently have a first-round pick in 2021.

The Houston Dash were pleased to get Bridgette Andrzejewski with their first selection at No. 18 and have hinted there could be moves coming in the near future. Reign FC took Santa Clara midfielder Kelcie Hedge to close out of the 1st round and did not pick again until the end of the fourth round. The biggest Reign news of the week was the hiring of Farid Benstiti as the club’s new head coach.

And then there’s the Courage. The league champions traded up to the No. 6 pick, tried to do some more moving around, and appeared frustrated when they were forced to sit on that spot. They used it on Ally Watt, a lightning-quick forward from Texas A&M who will add depth to the best roster in the NWSL.

Every NWSL draft is important, and the truth is that it takes years to decipher who got the best of a given draft day. But something tells me we’ll look back on this one as a major turning point — for better or for worse — for several clubs.

Free Kicks

— The annual United Soccer Coaches Convention brings the whole soccer world together, from every industry. I enjoyed chatting with VEO co-founder and CEO Henrik Teisbaek during the convention. VEO is a multi-camera video technology that allows matches or training sessions to be filmed from such an angle that coaches can watch any part of the field during any part of the match. In other words, the picture can be frozen at any point and scrolled through the entire field. That means you can see where your defenders are positioned as your opponent passes out of the back. Teisbaek said he was selling cameras and subscriptions to the service right off the shelf at VEO’s booth on the exhibit hall. VEO can be found at veo.co.

— Although Sky Blue’s 2019 was a disaster in that their two first-round picks, Hailie Mace and Julia Ashley, sat out the season rather than report, it should be noted that Paige Monaghan and Julie James Doyle were quietly successful selections at No. 10 and 11, respectively. Monaghan wound up at U.S. national team identification camp last month. Even No. 29 pick Kenie Wright contributed some in 2019.

— Skinner expressed some confidence that Caitlin Foord will eventually play for the Pride, though he stopped short of suggesting it would happen in 2020. Foord’s rights were acquired by the Pride in the trade that sent the No. 1 overall pick to Portland. Reports have her linked to signing with Arsenal.

— The Red Stars and Sky Blue FC agreed to split some of the allocation money the Red Stars acquired when they moved off the 2 and 3 picks. This was first reported by Meg Linehan and later confirmed to The Equalizer. The exact figures that changed hands have been reported by various outlets and disputed by various clubs.

The NWSL says it has a ‘Rooney Rule,’ but no one seems to know much about it

— The Thorns are the first NWSL team to ever make the first two overall picks. Four years ago, they woke up sitting on the first two picks but moved No. 2 to Sky Blue in the trade that brought them Nadia Nadim. Sky Blue used that pick to draft Raquel Rodriguez, who was recently traded to the Thorns.

— Want more 2016-2020 draft weirdness? The Thorns acquired the No. 1 pick that year and used it on Emily Sonnett. This year, they used Sonnett to acquire the No. 1 pick. Both times were in trades with Orlando.

— The real noise of the 2016 draft came when the league announced a new player acquisition mechanism just as the draft started. It was designed to get Mallory Pugh to the Thorns as an allocated player without having to go through the draft. And of course, Pugh was part of the biggest trade of the 2020 draft. She has never played for the Thorns.

— Oh, and the 2016 draft was in Baltimore. The convention returns in 2028, so mark your calendars.

WoSo around the world

England

W L D GF GA PTS
Manchester City 11 2 0 33 5 33
Arsenal 11 2 0 36 9 33
Chelsea 10 0 2 34 8 32
Manchester United 6 5 0 19 8 18
Everton 6 5 0 17 15 18
Reading 5 5 2 18 23 17
Tottenham Hotspur 5 7 1 12 22 16
West Ham United 4 6 1 15 22 13
Brighton and Hove Albion 2 8 3 9 28 9
Birmingham City 2 8 1 5 20 7
Liverpool 1 8 3 4 13 6
Bristol City 1 8 3 8 37 6

The latest: Sam Kerr’s first Chelsea goal was the middle strike in a three-goal explosion in the opening 20 minutes at Arsenal in a match that could go a long way in shaping the title race. Arsenal’s first loss of the season dropped them behind Manchester City on goal difference after Man City beat Tottemham 3-0 on two goals and assist by Katie Zelem. Chelsea sit a point back of the top two. At the bottom, Liverpool rode and early Rachel Furness goal to their first win of the season, 1-0 at Bristol who replaced Liverpool on the bottom of the table, also thanks to goal difference. The league is dark this weekend but returns with Manchester City hosting Arsenal on February 2.

France

W L D GF GA PTS
Lyon 11 0 2 49 4 35
Paris Saint-Germain 10 1 2 48 5 32
Bordeaux 9 3 1 29 12 28
Montpellier 7 3 3 29 12 24
Guingamp 5 4 4 16 16 19
Paris FC 5 6 2 16 26 17
Soyaux 4 4 4 15 21 16
Stade de Reims 4 7 2 12 20 14
Fleury 91 4 6 2 14 23 14
Dijon 2 6 5 8 26 11
Marseille 2 11 0 9 48 6
Metz 0 12 1 5 37 1

The latest: Lyon were held 0-0 away to Bordeaux on Sunday which opened the door for Paris Saint-Germain to crash their annual title party. Following a rollicking, 11-0 whitewash of Marseille, PSG trail Lyon by just three points with the goal differential close. If things stay the same PSG will have a chance go to the top of the table March 13 when they host Lyon. Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Antoinette Katoto both had hat tricks in PSG’s win on Saturday while Nadia Nadim added a pair.

Spain

W L D GF GA PTS
Barcelona 15 0 1 65 6 46
Atletico Madrid 11 3 2 32 16 37
Levante 10 3 3 26 14 33
Deportivo de la Caruna 9 3 3 30 22 30
Real Sociedad 7 4 4 23 16 25
Athletic Club 7 6 3 23 20 24
Logrono 7 6 3 28 30 24
Rayo Vallecano 6 4 6 22 26 24
Tacon 5 7 4 25 38 19
Granadilla Tenerife 4 7 5 13 23 17
Sevilla 4 9 3 22 27 15
Madrid 4 9 3 14 32 15
Valencia 3 8 5 19 23 14
Sporting de Huelva 4 10 2 10 22 14
Real Betis 2 9 5 16 27 11
Espanyol 0 13 3 10 36 3

The latest: Barcelona’s grip on the title strengthened with a 3-1 win over Rao Vallecano while Atletico Madrid had to settle for a 2-2 draw at Sevilla. An NWSL-related note: Former Orlando Pride player Danica Evans has signed with Sporting de Huelva.

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