Drafting the NWSL’s Future

On a dreary Thursday in January, the huge lobby/upscale-food-court of the Marriott in Downtown L.A. is bright and buzzing. A giant banner welcomes everyone to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NCSAA) Conference. Over the course of several days, there are league meetings for the MLS and NWSL; training clinics, including with some current players and coaches; and the MLS SuperDraft.

Which means you’ll see Jill Ellis and the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) coaching staff when you’re in line to buy an Americano. You’ll pass U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati in the hallway, and Portland Thorns FC coach Mark Parsons as you follow the banners directing the way to the Diamond Ballroom, welcoming you to the 2017 NWSL College Draft.

I picked up my registration credentials and went inside to find my place among the rows of media tables in the back of the room. On the tables closest to the stage, each club’s scarves are carefully laid out around bouquets of flowers and team signage, where management and representatives from the 10 organizations will conduct their draft. The players hoping to be drafted are not far behind them in the audience. With family, friends, and even some youth club coaches in attendance, the event is open to the public, and I can’t imagine anyone here, regardless of what brought us, has only a casual interest in The Beautiful Game.

As I make my way to my assigned workstation—mostly, this would be a place to charge my phone, and try not to step on the cords of the NWSL’s computers and equipment—the broadcast team prepares the stage in the far back corner on my left. This year, coverage is hosted by Mark Rogondino; Keeper Notes columnist and Houston Dash broadcaster Jen Cooper; and former USWNT player and current NCAA analyst Aly Wagner.

The No. 1 draft pick, Rose Lavelle, hoists her new Boston Breakers jersey. (Justin Hargett)

***

Most of the players drafted were in attendance, and the NWSL gives each the podium after they’re selected.

First-overall pick Rose Lavelle set the tone. Thanking the Boston Breakers for drafting her, as well as her coaches, teammates, family, and support system from her youth clubs up through the University of Wisconsin, Lavelle said to the room, “I think it’s really awesome for all of us to have a place to play after college and be able to follow our dreams.”

This isn’t something fans should forget.

For the most part, you will see the players drafted on January 12th on the pitch for their clubs in 2017. The Boston Breakers’ six draft picks in particular, beginning with first-rounders Lavelle, Morgan Andrews, Ifeoma Onumonu, and Margaret Purce, know they have the chance to really mold a franchise that earned only 11 points in 2016, a last-place finish secured far too early in the season. The players proudly wearing their brand new Breakers scarves conveyed a genuine excitement and readiness to put in the work, together; 2017 may not be a top-four season for the club, but the players aren’t resigned to that, and nor should Breakers fans.

Those who were drafted expressed common themes on stage and in the press room: gratitude to families, coaches, occasionally God, and always to fellow teammates. A few took their time at the microphone to wish fellow draftees good luck. They also spoke of looking forward to improving their game, earnestly answering questions about their personal skills and what they hoped to improve.

There’s a joy and optimism in the room, a care that takes hold, which makes even a long, whirlwind afternoon energizing.

Third overall selection and the second draft pick for the Boston Breakers, USC midfielder Morgan Andrews. (Justin Hargett)

Before speaking to the press about how her style of play at Stanford will mesh with Laura Harvey’s system in Seattle, Maddie Bauer, Reign FC’s first-round pick, said, “I’m so excited to finally have a scarf!”

It took a while for the NC Courage jackets to make their way to the press area for photos with first-round picks Ashley Hatch (BYU) and Darian Jenkins (UCLA). Three days earlier, the franchise—formerly known as the 2016 champion Western New York Flashofficially announced their move to Cary, North Carolina.

The Courage make their new home in an area synonymous with producing many of the greatest players in USWNT history, a tradition likely to continue indefinitely. More recently, of course, the state is known for transphobic legislation and undemocratic gerrymandering that has spurred the NBA and NCAA to disinvest from North Carolina. Asked about the concrete steps for the league regarding the state’s horrendous HB2, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush said,

“I think the next step is to sit down with the Courage and with their ownership, with the governor, with Equality North Carolina, and figure out those next steps…I feel strongly that we are going to be a participant in this, and not just sit on the sidelines.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Plush said the NWSL needs to discuss non-discrimination standards and fan conduct policies, welcoming opinions on the best direction for the league, clubs, and players. “There’s a lot more for me to learn, certainly…North Carolina’s not the only place; there’s other conversations happening, so I think we have to be participant.”

The franchise’s move to the state, then, may also serve to support the progress for which the righteous coalition of Moral Mondays protests has been fighting for on a variety of issues.

The Courage are also the latest NWSL team to be affiliated with a men’s professional team, the NASL’s North Carolina FC (formerly the RailHawks). Though jarring to see a championship team move to a different region only days before the draft, this is surely one of the best moves to position the league; and most importantly, should be beneficial to players on the Courage and their opponents.

***

Some clubs have few changes to make, despite disappointing 2016 seasons. With new ownership officially announced the day before the draft—along with promises that the club will not be relocating—FC Kansas City should be back in form. The club certainly welcomes the return from maternity leave of forward Amy Rodriguez and her USWNT teammate Sydney Leroux-Dwyer.

As head coach Vlatko Andonovski said of his 2017 draft picks, “If I was Christina Gibbons and I know I’m going to Kansas City playing next to (USWNT co-captain) Becky Sauerbrunn, I would be excited…or if I was Stephanie Ribeiro or Lexi Shaffer or Toni Payne, I would be excited to play behind A-Rod and Sydney Leroux and Shea Groom—they’re definitely excited about the players they’re going to play with, and can you blame them? I would, too.”

With her just-announced move to Arsenal following retirement from international duty late last year, Heather O’Reilly is the third prominent USWNT player to leave the NWSL this off-season, but the two-time league champions are still well-positioned to return to the playoffs this year.

The Houston Dash are in a similar situation. The 2016 team brought high hopes to make the playoffs and featured valuable contributions from Houston’s three first-round draft picks. The Olympics break—with seven members of the 2016 Dash representing their countries—coupled with Carli Lloyd’s injury early in the season led to coach Randy Waldrum experimenting with formations and personnel combinations in the search for a goal during a string of 1-0 defeats.

This year, there’s fortunately no Olympics and international signings Bruna Benites (Brazil) and Janine Van Wyck (South Africa) will strengthen the Houston defense, arguably the only place they need it. In the 2017 draft, the Dash selected Jane Campbell (Stanford), a goalkeeper expected to be very involved with the USWNT in the future; Canadian forward Nichelle Prince (Ohio State); and Erin Smith, a defender from Rutgers (of Carli Lloyd fame).

Waldrum said that Lloyd’s role with the Dash fits with what U.S. head coach Jill Ellis envisions, and the scheduling will allow the club to be its truest self. “The exciting thing for (Carli and me), I think, and along with Morgan (Brian) as well, is, this is the first time, really, we’ve had them both [in] two years, but it’s the first time we’re really going to have them in a season, where we’ve got them on a regular, daily training basis, and you hope, obviously, that’s going to equate to some more wins.” English forward Rachel Daly will miss some time in her second season while she represents the Three Lions in the Euros, but as with FCKC, a disappointing 2016 campaign for Houston didn’t mean a team overhaul. The future looks bright. I could go on.

Draft hosts Mark Rogondino, Jen Cooper, and Aly Wagner. (Justin Hargett)

With retirements (captain Keelin Winters; forward and leading goal-scorer Manon Melis), and the irreplaceable Kim Little returning to Arsenal, Seattle Reign FC will have a bit of a different look this season. Head coach and general manager Laura Harvey said, “We feel like we’ve lost sort of that focus point, but we still have Naho (Kawasumi), Pinoe, Bev (Yanez), Jess (Fishlock), etc. in our team that are world-class players—and not just world-class players, but world-class players who they believe they have something to prove because they didn’t perform they way they wanted to last season, so I’m really excited about this year.”

Replacing pivotal members of the team is never easy, but as Harvey alluded, Megan Rapinoe being healthy from the outset, plus the return of midfielder Christine Nairn after two years with the Spirit, will certainly help the Reign’s cause in 2017. Her draft picks sounded the same optimistic note, starting with Stanford defender Maddie Bauer. Harvey also jumped at the chance to select USC and Mexico U23 forward Katie Johnson in the second round, later adding forward/midfielder Arielle Ship (UC-Berkley) and UVA defender Kristen McNabb.

There’s no word yet on whether goalkeeper Hope Solo will return to play—an important story to watch—and Harvey had a few announcements of international signings to come soon. Seattle promises to be as fun to watch and capable of brilliant football as ever.

Then, there’s Portland Thorns FC. On July 30 last year, without most of their Olympics representatives, the Thorns faced a brilliant, near-full strength Seattle team. The Thorns lined up in a 5-4-1 formation that relied on Nadia Nadim to hopefully score a goal at some point—which, despite how good she is, seemed a small miracle to ask against Seattle. Mark Parsons’ side proved me laughably wrong, of course, and the 1-0 Portland victory was one of the most fun matches I have seen in the league. The Thorns eventually won the 2016 NWSL Shield. They are very good.

With four draft picks at the end of the day, the Thorns selected three attacking players with picks 14, 18, and 21: Rachel Hill (UConn), Savannah Jordan (Florida), and Tyler Lussi (Princeton); and midfielder/defender Caroline Flynn (Nebraska) with the final pick of the afternoon. As their Shield-winning season reflects, the Thorns’ 2016 roster is the kind of team you want when building a dynasty, but Parsons’ club always gives opportunity for role players to shine, and even turn into stars themselves. Also their home games seem fun.

***

After the NWSL final in October 2016, I wondered what few changes the Washington Spirit would need to make in order to improve a club that nearly won the league title, if not for an extra time equalizer from Lynn WIlliams and a penalty kick victory by the Western New York Flash.

The series of decisions by Spirit ownership and management since then maybe shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the players had to speak out against their own club during the season. Still, anyone who watched the Spirit play in 2016 would think a second-place result for the NWSL Shield and a near-championship would be incentive to keep a team together.

And yet: The offseason begins with trading Ali Krieger to Orlando, then Christine Nairn to the Reign, and capped by the announcement that Crystal Dunn had decided to leave the club and play for Chelsea. Spirit fans—and certainly players—could be forgiven for losing faith in the organization. It’s amazing that the team had as much success as they did in 2016, considering the reported atmosphere cultivated by the Washington Spirit leadership. Head coach/GM Jim Gabarra and owner Bill Lynch have a lot of work to do, to, I don’t know, learn anything at all from last season?

In her gracious Instagram post, Dunn expressed that she would be back in the NWSL in the future. And who could blame her for wanting to play at Chelsea this year? Though the English league is considered less quality than the NWSL, there’s no doubt that the draw of world-class facilities and institutional support from one of the Premier League’s most prominent clubs would be enticing enough.

***

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush took questions for about 30 minutes during the second round of the draft, on a range of topics from the ever-present wonder of where the league will expand next and at what pace; how committed the league is to hiring more women coaches; and other labor issues—one being the idea of non-national team players organizing themselves—and of course, the effect of the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. Women’s National Team players and the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Noticeably absent from the 2017 NWSL Draft are Canadian internationals Kadeisha Buchanan, who won the MAC Hermann Trophy as the best college player in 2016 (now at Olympique Lyonnais), and her WVU teammate Ashley Lawrence (Paris Saint-Germain). Commissioner Plush acknowledged that the league would love to have both players, but understood why players go abroad, often for higher salaries.

As the members of the U.S. Women’s National team have made clear, their fight for equal pay is not just about them; it’s for women and girls in the U.S. and internationally. The equal pay fight, as Christen Press said on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in November, is a social movement. This was mirrored in Rose Lavelle’s comments to NWSL reporter Ashleigh Ignelzi; that she wanted to be a role model for younger girls.

It certainly helps broaden the U.S. Soccer fan base even more that players like Crystal Dunn and Alex Morgan will star for prominent clubs in the English and French leagues, and USWNT players should play wherever they feel most supported, where they have the best opportunity to become the best players they can. Carli Lloyd has been named the best women’s player in the world two years in a row; yet, when she misses one match with the Dash, there’s a sense of impatience from some fans. There are questions about whether the lifelong Liverpool fan is committed to Houston. Such questions can come from a good place, but they’re the wrong questions in my mind (though as Lloyd writes in her book, those questions also fuel her to prove doubters wrong).

The players entering the 2017 draft collectively bring years of experience in elite club and college programs and various U.S. Youth National Teams—with Canada and Mexico also represented—and many players were in town for U23 National Team training, among friends. Players stayed together inside and outside the ballroom, not divided by which colleges they attended or which clubs chose them—though one highlight of the draft is seeing Sky Blue FC select defenders Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman in the first round, USC teammates and national champions. One of the first people to congratulate Rose Lavelle in the press room on being picked first by Boston was Emily Sonnett of the Portland Thorns and USWNT—last year’s top draft pick, who was joined at the event by fellow National-Teamer and Houston Dash midfielder Morgan Brian, the NWSL’s top draft pick in 2014.

USC teammates Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman are selected by Sky Blue FC in the first round. (Justin Hargett)

Player familiarity with one another and a sense of camaraderie was evident last Thursday, as many checked in to see who was drafted during their own interviews; that culture of mutual support is important to growing the league. And while it’s impossible to make it to a professional draft without benefitting from institutional and familial support systems, you also don’t make it to this level without knowing sacrifice and commitment. And if we expect players to commit to the NWSL, we need to ensure that the conditions under which they play and the support they receive is better than at every previous level.

Though NWSL Commissioner Plush reiterated that the league is not a party to the negotiations between the U.S. Women’s National Team players and the U.S. Soccer Federation, the players’ fight for equal pay from the federation they essentially fund is inextricable from the health of our women’s domestic league.

I asked the commissioner when every player on a roster will earn a living wage through the league. While I realize that’s not the simplest question, it is a foundational one. Plush said,

“We’ve worked quite hard to raise the standard every year, and we’ve increased pay every year, and we will be coming out in fairly short order with what the minimum and max and cap will be for this year, but it’ll be quite a bit year over year. And what we’ll continue to do, though, to be very, very clear, is we will continue to operate in a manner that is prudent for the long-term sustainability of the league. That has to be a priority for us.”

NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, taking questions in the media room. (Justin Hargett)

Still, there are amateur players on rosters who are not paid anything, per league rules. This is not sustainable and must change.

 Of course, all of this would be simplified if the U.S. Soccer Federation recognized what the USWNT players themselves have repeatedly made clear: That though they are, by every metric from finances to win/loss records, rankings, and trophies, more successful than the U.S. Men’s National Team, they are only asking for pay equality. 

A celebratory talking point of the league is that it’s in its fifth season; Plush spoke ambitiously of envisioning the league in a tenth and twentieth season with gradual expansions (WUSA and WPS both folded after three years). That’s surely a difficult balancing act, but the U.S. Soccer Federation in particular has given zero justification for its lack of fairly funding the salaries of its most profitable stars and the women’s league it needs to make a vital priority.

If the NWSL is to persist, let alone thrive, it needs to be proactive in addressing the conditions Hope Solo described in her piece about the league from last July, so that the best league in the world—with major funding by the profits overwhelmingly earned by the U.S. Women’s National Team in the first place—keeps the overlap of the USWNT and NWSL rosters high.

And it would help to ensure that no team owners or management are allowed to create a toxic environment disinterested in building a club where players want to be, that dedicated fans can support.

Above all, none of the players take the league for granted. Neither, again, can we as fans.

Now: Is it NWSL preseason yet?

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Sam Vuchenich is a writer living in Los Angeles.