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Everyone hates the NWSL Expansion Draft. Will the league find a better solution before 2026?

Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

Just about everyone hates the National Women’s Soccer League Expansion Draft.

Teams obviously dread it, because some new, shiny object has come along to pick apart the squad they worked hard to build. Players loathe it, because in a league that has historically offered them no direct right to choose where they play, they could be told to pack up and move without consent from them or their current team, as a trade scenario could at least offer.

Even beyond the act of roster pillaging, teams and players must deal with the angst that is putting out a public list of unprotected players. It’s the type of thing that can hurt a locker room and cause long-term trust issues between players and the team.

Talk to anyone around the NWSL, and they despise the process. And yet! Here we are again, in another double expansion draft two years after the last one.

Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC changed the trajectory of the expansion draft in late 2021 by largely pre-selecting players from rosters and, in return, offering immunity to those teams willing to play ball. It was good for the players and mutually beneficial to the teams involved. No uncertainty, no lists of unprotected players, and no selecting players who didn’t actually want to move.

Fast-forward to this year and, after a ludicrous rush of trades announced hours after the transaction deadline on Tuesday, Bay FC and Utah Royals FC are in largely similar positions. What started as a draft that would see 24 players selected will now only see 10 players chosen — still more than some teams expected, as multiple sources described widespread confusion around the league over the past week regarding the language of the rule that “an incumbent team may lose no more than two unprotected players throughout the expansion draft.” Three teams — the Wave, the North Carolina Courage, and Racing Louisville — only managed a deal with one expansion team, meaning the other expansion team can take two players from said incumbent team.

The confusion (oddly timed, as this wrinkle has been discussed publicly for weeks) added fuel to an already fully stoked fire over the process of the expansion draft.

Two years ago, it was obvious that the expansion draft needed a mass overhaul. This week’s events only further confirm its place in the landscape is trending more toward obsolete than essential. So, why are we here again? And, more productively, how does the NWSL avoid making the same mistakes again ahead of another round of double expansion in 2026, when Boston and another to-be-determined team will join the league?

There’s an argument that the expansion draft must remain for the very fact that it is leverage for the expansion teams to use as an asset, as Bay, Utah, San Diego and Angel City all have done. These are formal versions of handshake deals that used to happen before 2021, among them a convoluted trade that effectively saw an incumbent team (Portland Thorns FC) choose the first player in the Orlando Pride’s expansion draft in late 2015.

Today’s deals are indeed being done because the expansion draft is collateral that new teams can leverage. ‘Don’t want to have your roster picked apart? Work with us!’ But with that idea in mind, the NWSL’s task is really to find the right mix of assets that could allow new teams to be competitive either through the mechanisms themselves or by using them as assets. Abolishing the expansion draft is an exercise in figuring out what else could benefit a new team.

There is one major difference now that did not exist in any previous expansion draft, including in 2021: free agency.

At its core, an expansion team needs players, because its starting point is zero. Expansion teams already get extra allocation money, and since that is effectively Monopoly money, there is no reason a few hundred thousand extra dollars can’t be printed for new NWSL teams. Maybe they can’t go land a world superstar with an astronomical offer (or, maybe they can!), but an existing team might trade for that extra cash and send back a player or two in return. Enough of that extra allocation money — or even cap space — could sweeten the pot enough for free agents to sign with expansion teams. And given the ever-rising bar or expansion-team standards in the NWSL, these are sought-after destinations, anyway. Teams entering the league now are guaranteeing resources that some incumbent teams have never offered in a decade of existence.

Expansion teams could be given an exclusive, early negotiating window with free agents, on top of the extra money. This should be the primary mechanism for new teams to acquire veteran leadership with NWSL experience. Critically, it is a method that allows for a mutual decision, too. The writing was on the wall for this two years ago, but the league stuck with effectively the same model for Utah and Bay FC.

Many of the other ideas that came out of the Angel City/San Diego expansion draft remain, but since they were not implemented this time around, they are worth pointing out again.

Instead of giving the two expansion teams in 2026 the first and second overall picks, respectively, in the NWSL Draft, why not give them the first four, alternating? Then do the same thing at the start of each round.

Outrageous, you say? Great! That is the type of reaction that would get the attention of incumbent teams. If they want a top draft pick, a player they identify as a generational talent, they will have to give up other players to trade into that top four. Otherwise, the expansion teams keep those picks and manage not just to acquire players to build their future team around, but they can add a higher volume of players to a roster that needs filling out.

While we’re at it, give expansion teams more international spots for their first two or three seasons. The open international market is a necessary place for acquiring talent.

None of those solutions are foolproof, nor will they solve every issue facing an expansion team. Ultimately, it is up to the people running the expansion teams to make the best possible moves with the hands they are dealt. San Diego did that from the jump. The Wave led the league for half the season in its inaugural year in 2022 and became the first expansion team to make the playoffs in its maiden season. A year later, San Diego won the NWSL Shield. The Wave put together a strong roster largely without utilizing the expansion draft, where they used their first pick on Kristie Mewis to facilitate her move from Houston to Gotham, then passed on two other picks (one as part of a handshake deal with Portland that didn’t meet the trade deadline before the draft).

Thus far, Bay FC and Utah have largely brought in role players or players still looking for their big break in the league. This stands in stark contrast to longtime U.S. international Christen Press as Angel City’s first signing, and San Diego going after U.S. internationals Abby Dahlkemper and Alex Morgan among their first acquisitions.

Ultimately, teams must deal with the current market. The Washington Spirit somehow got protection from Utah for a pair of second-round picks. The Kansas City Current, meanwhile, gave up Kate Del Fava and the No. 4 overall pick in the draft for protection from Utah (plus $75,000 in allocation money to Kansas City). NJ/NY Gotham FC managed to get protection and $150,000 back from Utah for goalkeeper Mandy Haught. None of those provide a trend or clear valuation for what expansion-draft protection is worth.

The expansion draft sucks. I’m yet to find anyone in the league who doesn’t share that opinion. Even the teams benefiting from it understand they have a responsibility to limit the disruption to players’ lives, and that they need to acquire players who want to be there.

If everyone hates it, and there’s ongoing manipulation of and confusion around rules, when will the NWSL do something different? The league has two years to find a solution.

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