Philadelphia — No surprises to start this year’s draft. With the first pick in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, the Spirit selected Stanford midfielder Andi Sullivan. The widely expected pick was made official on Thursday morning in Philadelphia.
Sullivan, currently in camp with the U.S. women’s national team in Carson, California, addressed the room in a video message after NWSL Managing Director of Operations Amanda Duffy announced her name as the No. 1 overall pick.
“I’m so excited to come back home to the DMV and play with the team that I watched growing up and to come give back to the soccer community that helped me so much throughout my youth,” she said in the video.
Sullivan also spoke to reporters on a conference call late Wednesday night, when it became official that the Spirit organization and general manager and coach Jim Gabarra would select her with the first overall pick.
“I was kind of hoping to be picked first. I mean, you don’t really know. There are a lot of good players in the draft,” Sullivan said. “Today was kind of the first real moment of taking pictures with the jersey and stuff like that. It was like, ‘Oh this is actually happening.’ Pretty cool.”
Sullivan, who grew up in the Virginia area, says she’s looking forward to returning to the area. Sullivan played on local youth teams, and even on a youth side associated with the Washington Freedom of the WUSA in 2002, Gabarra said.
“Having the No. 1 pick and having the ability to pick Andi is huge because not only a local player, but a high quality person that could be a player that we build our franchise around for years to come,” Gabarra said on the call.
It’s been a long road to the NWSL for Sullivan, who tore her ACL in the fall of 2016 shortly after receiving her first caps with the U.S. women’s national team. But in 2017, she returned to the field for Stanford and the U.S. women’s national team.
Sullivan, Stanford’s captain, finished off her college career with the the NCAA tournament trophy in her hands, helping to lead the Cardinal to the title. In her college career, she registered 20 goals and 19 assists. On January 5, Sullivan won the 2017 MAC Hermann Trophy, awarded to the best player in college soccer.
Sullivan said she took some down time after the end of the college season and it was after receiving the award that she decided to officially enter the NWSL draft.
“The individual honor was obviously very nice, and a great turning point from college to professional,” she said. “Just kind of thought things over. I want to be here and playing in the NWSL, so I signed up and I’m doing it.”
Sullivan’s name, however, did not appear on a list of players registered for the draft until Wednesday night, the day before the draft.
“I was just kind of taking some time off from the soccer world just before I entered. I didn’t mean to frazzle anybody, so sorry about that if you were worried,” she said
There was also the question of whether she would head to Europe to play, as players like Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence have done after college. Sullivan said she considered it, but ultimately decided to stay in the United States.
“Yeah, absolutely something I considered,” she said. “For me, personally, I just thought the timing wasn’t quite right. I wanted to stay here in the U.S. for now, but definitely could see myself playing in Europe in the future. It all just kind of depends. I really wanted to be here in the U.S. and help grow the league here. And also be as available for camps as possible. That was something that was pretty important to me. Especially with qualifying coming up and wanting to be in this environment. “
Sullivan is the sixth ever No. 1 overall pick in the NWSL draft and the second player selected No. 1 overall by the Washington Spirit, joining Crystal Dunn (2014).
“[Sullivan’s] proven at the national team level that she can play in the 6 role, she can play in the 8 role. She’s a really good fit for what our style of play is with the Spirit and that’s possession oriented,” Gabarra said. “She can link the defensive line to the forward line and she can also get forward into the attack and become dangerous in scoring chances.
“But again, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and just say, ‘She’s our savior and she’s going to come in there and turn everything around.’”
The NWSL preseason begins February 19 and the first games will take place the weekend of March 24-25. Until then, Sullivan will be preparing for the next level and the day in, day out of soccer at the professional level — all while at USWNT camp with a game vs. Denmark on Sunday.
“Being able to come into a few national team camps will help kind of translate my play from college to the league, playing with some of those players that play in the league and seeing how much higher the level is. I hope my passing ability will be able to stay strong in the league,” Sullivan said. “Being able to connect passes and kind of see the rhythm of the game, but I think that will be challenged just by the physicality and speed of play. It’s obviously a level up. Definitely some things I would like to work on.”
Also on the national team front, the SheBelieves tournament will take place in early March, shortly after the start of the NWSL preseason and shortly before the first games. The United States also has the Tournament of Nations coming up this summer, and likely additional games still to be scheduled. Then in October, after the NWSL season is complete, the USWNT will take part in the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup 2018, the Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament ahead of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
All in Sullivan’s first professional season.
“We also have to be aware of managing her through the stress levels of being called into national team camps and getting ready for qualifications. Give her time to experience and grow and learn about our league because it is extremely challenging,” he said.
“The quality of every team in the league is extremely high now that we’re ten teams with pretty stable rosters and different styles. It’s very competitive every single day.”
Sullivan also joins a Spirit team that was involved in one the biggests trade of the offseason so far earlier this week. In a blockbuster deal, the Spirit sent the rights to Dunn, the 2015 NWSL MVP, to the North Carolina Courage in exchange for defender Taylor Smith and the reigning Rookie of the Year in forward Ashley Hatch.
Washington finished in last place in 2017 with a 5-15-4 record, but, just this week, have acquired several key players to address their needs. They also selected Duke midfielder Rebecca Quinn with the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft, having traded up earlier in the week for the pick.