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Kassouf: Circumventing the NWSL expansion draft underscores the need for free agency

Photo: Angel City FC

It is hard to imagine a more anticlimactic buildup to Thursday’s National Women’s Soccer League Expansion Draft. What originally was going to be an event featuring 20 picks to populate the rosters of Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC — the two expansion teams beginning play in 2022 — has been cut by more than half, its element of surprise mostly removed by trades made so that teams could avoid the draft.

As it stands, 11 of those picks have been officially “protected” by teams trading for immunity, something nobody knew was possible until the Chicago Red Stars first did so last year, ahead of the Racing Louisville FC expansion draft. Of the nine remaining picks, at least one has a handshake agreement in place to not be used, The Equalizer reported on Friday. Two more have clauses that were negotiated by OL Reign and the Washington Spirit preventing the selection of specific players.

All of that speaks to the antiquated setup of the expansion draft as a process, something which this column explored earlier this year. Expansion drafts suck for existing teams and are not overly helpful to incoming teams — except, as we are learning, as trade leverage.

A secondary and equally important point underscored this month, however, has been how players — not just teams — have utilized that leverage to force moves they desired. Player movement surrounding this expansion draft — and particularly the migration of a significant amount of talent to the new California teams, which on paper offer new beginnings — must be viewed in the context of this point and time in NWSL players’ negotiation for a first collective bargaining agreement. Free agency is one of the highest priorities for players in those negotiations.

What we’ve seen in yet another offseason of major NWSL trades is that players are getting out of situations they deemed undesirable and joining new clubs through methods which make them feel like they had some say in the matter, despite being stuck in a system which renders them powerless to control their own employment within the NWSL.

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