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Lauletta: 2024 draft already reaping great rewards

Washington midfielder Croix Bethune controls the ball.
Photo Copyright Troy Wayrynen for USA TODAY Sports

As the National Women’s Soccer League has moved to accept American-raised players who have not exhausted their college eligibility, some thought has been given to eliminating the entry draft. The reasons for this go beyond some of the best available players entering the league before they would be drafted — and that may be a topic for a future column — but the first weeks of this season have shown the draft to be a landmine for finding players capable of contributing.

The most poignant example so far is Croix Bethune. When the Georgia midfielder went No. 3 overall to the Washington Spirit, the club was giddy she was still on the board, per commentary on this weekend’s ION broadcast with Maura Sheridan and Jordan Angeli. Three nights earlier, Bethune continued her remarkable rookie campaign when she handed out three assists in the Spirit’s 4-2 beatdown of the Chicago Red Stars. It marked only the sixth 3-assist game in NWSL history and brought Bethune’s season totals to three goals and four assists. Saturday’s loss in Portland marked only the third time in eight matches that Bethune has been held off the score sheet.

Bethune’s contributions go beyond the scoresheet. She has helped bring the Spirit midfield to life, pulling strings and opening up pockets of space for Trinity Rodman and Ouleymata Sarr. She has also taken heat off the front office for trading mainstay center back Sam Staab to the Red Stars. The return on the trade was the No. 3 pick.

Two picks after Bethune, the Spirit nabbed Hal Hershfelt from Clemson. Hershfelt has played a deeper midfield role than Bethune but has also contributed to the cub’s hot start. Hershfelt was taken with the pick acquired in the trade for Ashley Sanchez.

Early draft success has not stopped with the Spirit and their top picks. No.1 overall pick Ally Sentnor has two of the best goals this season for the Royals and has shown immense offensive potential while playing on a club that lacks much in the way of significant attacking personnel. No. 6 pick Reilyn Turner has been a regular contributor in Racing Louisville’s attack. In the second round, Ellie Wheeler (No. 18) started every Current match until this past weekend; Lauren Flynn (No. 16) and Olivia Griffitts (No. 20) have stepped in adequately as injury replacements on the Royals back line. Payton Linnehan (No. 11) stepped in for her first start on Wednesday and quickly combined with Sophia Smith with a goal and an assist in a Thorns win.

And then there is the backend. No NWSL draft had gone beyond 48 picks. The No. 49 pick Courtney Brown has been in the Spirit rotation. Check out her flick at the top of the box as part of this stoppage-time winner—scored by Bethune—in Bay’s home opener.

And don’t sleep on Madison Curry who has been an injury fill-in at outside back for Angel City and show herself well.

None of this means that the draft is the only suitable way to transition these players into the professional game, but even with the teenage revolution upon us and the influx of quality Euros, there is no question the college game is still producing NWSL-ready players every year.

Around the league

Royals 1, Angel City 2

The Royals sure looked like the better team in both halves, but they could not solve the 18-yard box and remain on just one win. The story for me though was the performance of Alyssa Thompson. The teen (who did enter the draft but at the expense of her college eligibility), assisted on an early goal by Sydney Leroux and later drew the penalty that allowed Claire Emslie to double the lead. Notable on the penalty was the touch by teenager Kennedy Fuller (bypassed the draft) to keep the play alive and allow Thomspon to enter the box.

Dana Foederer, in her return from injury, scored the Royals goal on an assist from Sentnor. The team played with coach Amy Rodriguez sitting in a suite after she was red-carded late in the previous weekend’s draw with the Dash. Foederer’s goal snapped a 291-minute home scoreless streak.

Reign 2, Wave 1

Eleven minutes in it sure looked like the Reign were facing their 6th consecutive loss. Tziarra King was shown red in the 8th minute for taking a whack at Hanna Lundqvist and three minutes later the Wave were ahead 1-0 on a goal by Kyra Carusa. The Reign tied it in unlikely fashion after Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan gave the ball away directly to Bethany Balcer who had little trouble converting it into a goal.

The Wave controlled heavy stretches of the second half but it was the Reign who found the winner in the 89th minute. Veronica Latsko, Baler’s sub, drew a foul deep and wide and then managed to flick Ji So-Yun’s free kick on a perfect arc up into the far post, giving Sheridan no chance to even come close. After a long, drawn-out stoppage time that saw the Wave’s Kristen McNabb red-carded, the Reign celebrated the win as if the had won a trophy.

Gotham 1, Courage 0

Gotham collected their first win since opening day but still have yet to score multiple goals in a match. Lynn Williams scored for the first time this season, stepping into a loose ball in the box after a fracas near Casey Murphy’s goal. Gotham generally controlled the match, putting a huge press on a Courage side that played at the midweek. Even with the extra match, the Courage continued to use the same 16 players in all eight of their matches. That may have to change in Kansas City on Sunday after Malia Berkeley left the Gotham match in the first half with what appeared to be a calf strain.

Thorns 2, Spirit 1

Same as it ever was when the Spirit go to Portland. Another quick start/chaotic finish for the Thorns dropped their guests to 0-8-5 all-time at Providence Park. The win also made Thorns interim coach Rob Gale the first in league history to open with four straight wins.

Sam Coffey trailed the play and ran onto Hina Sugita’s pass back through the box to make it 1-0 in the fourth minute. In the 22nd, Isabella Obaze flicked a free kick toward the 6 and Christine Sinclair got just enough of a touch on it to evade keeper Aubrey Kingsbury.

The Spirit had numerous chances to get back in the match. Thorns keeper Shelby Hogan, whose form has had an upward trajectory to match the club’s results, made an athletic save on Croix Bethune early in the second half to keep the two-goal lead. Hogan had dove to stop an initial shot but it was blocked in front. It went right back to Bethune who put her second chance on goal and Hogan was able to recover just in time to parry it away. The Spirit also had a penalty correctly overturned when VAR ruled the contact was initiated outside the area. Eventually, Lena Silano scored on a Trinity Rodman assist but it was too little too late.

Current 1, Dash 1

This may go down as the least likely point of the season for the Dash. The home side played right into the Current’s hands for the opening 25 minutes, insisting on playing out of the back even as they were being smothered and constantly turned over by the press. Eventually, Temwa Chawinga scored though it looked like she slipped and fooled Jane Campbell by mishitting it.

A long weather delay pushed the second half back more than three hours and the Dash managed to equalize on a defensive mistake that is better off watched and not described.  When it ended 1-1 it kept the Current undefeated.

Orlando 1, Louisville 0

The Pride remained unbeaten and hit the top of the table while knocking Louisville from the ranks of those with a 0 in the L column. The goal? You guessed it. Barbra Banda. Racing keeper Katie Lund made several high-end saves to keep it close but the Pride were usually in charge of this match despite being the team that played midweek.

Bay 1, Red Stars 2

Bay were gifted one of the luckiest goals of the season but could not hold off the Red Stars and dropped to 2-6-0. The lucky goal happened when Alyssa Naeher’s pass out of goal deflected off Tess Boade and in.

The Red Stars stayed the course though and equalized when Penelope Hocking got on the end of a Sam Staab long ball. The winner was scored unassisted by Ally Schlegel after an initial shot was blocked in the box. It was facilitated though, by Jameese Joseph, yet another rookie (not mentioned above) who won the ball high and penetrated the 18.

Superb analysis from Jordan Angeli after Hocking’s goal to highlight that she was able to get behind her mark, Jen Beattie because Bay’s line was not in unison and Kayla Sharples was keeping her on.

For the first time this season, the NWSL teed it up on a Wednesday and the games were memorable. Bethune’s three-assist night led the Spirit to a 4-2 win in Chicago. In the Bay area, the Thorns roared to an early 2-0 lead but let Bay FC back into the match before winning 3-2 when Lysianne Proulx was unable to knock Sophia Smith’s shot over the bar. In an unusual site, Becky Sauerbrunn was culpable on both Bay FC goals and taken out of the game after the second one (she returned to play a fine match on Saturday).

The most interesting match, for me, happened in Orlando. Yes, Barbra Banda had two goals and an assist in the 4-1 win over the Courage. Yes, Ally Watt had a goal and an assist and looks like an entirely new player since Banda’s arrival. Yes, the Courage have a road issue (0-4-0 after the weekend loss). But the story of the game was the Pride sitting back and daring the Courage to beat them with possession.

Not only did the Courage seem confused at the tactic, but because of Banda and Watt’s speed they were able to win balls in their own half and spring lightning counterattacks to create instant offense. They played similar a few days earlier against the Spirit.

The NWSL is a press-happy league, and it works for many clubs, including the Pride at times. But having it at their disposal to sit and defend in their own half opens up an entirely new frontier. And it makes the Pride serious contenders to be the last team standing in November.


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Free Kicks

  • Sam Staab’s league record is up to 98 consecutive starts. It is also a record for consecutive games played.
  • Kaleigh Kurtz is threatening Amber Brooks’ ironwoman streak for minutes. With two full 90s last week, Kurtz has now played the last 6,262 minutes (all full games thanks to a weather-shortened result). Brooks’ mark is 6,483. If Kurtz continues she will set the record just before halftime on May 24 in Houston—where Brooks played during her streak. Another Dash, Jane Campbell, played 6,390 straight minutes.
  • Laura Harvey finally collected her 99th career NWSL win and can become the first to the century mark if she beats her old rival, and boss, Vlatko Andonovski on Wednesday night. Harvey is 4-10-6 against Andonovski which does not count the two times she lost to him in NWSL Championships.
  • It was not all good news in Orlando this week. Luana announced early in the week that she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. She has begun treatment at the Orlando Health Cancer Institute.
  • If Naomi Girma and Abby Dahlkemper are not fit to play for the Wave on Wednesday against the Royals, they will be down their top three center backs with Kristen McNabb suspended for her red card over the weekend.
  • Speaking of the Wave, the foul Maria Sanchez committed on Veronica Latsko ahead of the game-winning goal was entirely unnecessary. There were two Wave players behind Latsko, who had her back to the 18-yard box and was going in the wrong direction. These are the types of decisions that can torpedo seasons.
  • I would like to see the NWSL do a much better job of keeping fans in the loop when there are weather delays. This goes double for instances like Sunday when there was never a chance that the game was resuming on CBS.
  • Mallory Swanson now holds a rather dubious NWSL record of having had five penalties saved. The most recent was Sunday when, after a long delay, she took a weak kick that Katelyn Rowland saved clean. Pugh has also had penalties stopped by Erin McLeod, Kailen Sheridan, and Jane Campbell twice. She has converted just twice. One was a 90th-minute equalizer for the Spirit in 2017.
  • Speaking of penalties, someone asked me recently who my five takers would be if I had the entirety of the current NWSL to choose from. I think my five would be Ashley Hatch, Alex Morgan, Marta, Lo’eau LaBonta, and Morgan Gautrat.

    What about all-time? Among players who are retired or playing elsewhere, my top five would be Megan Rapinoe, Rachel Daly, Kim Little, Nadia Nadim, and Heather O’Reilly.

    Let me know your disagreements (@thedanlauletta). I thought about Diana Matheson who was 10-for-12 in the regular season. But she missed one late in a tied playoff game in 2014 and two years later took a week kick that was saved during spot kicks in the NWSL Championship. I also may want Alyssa Naeher but considering she has never taken a penalty in NWSL and is very unlikely to take one during a match, it felt wrong to include her.

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