By Celia Balf
We’re nearly a week away from the 2018 NWSL College Draft, which will take place on Thursday, Jan. 18, at 10 a.m. ET at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia. The registered players list continues to be updated, and coaches are preparing for the league’s sixth college draft.
The ten NWSL teams will select their prospects in Philadelphia, with the Washington Spirit holding the first pick. They’ll be followed by the Boston Breakers (#2), Houston Dash (#3), Sky Blue FC (#4, #5), Washington Spirit (#6), Chicago Red Stars (#7), Portland Thorns FC (#8, #9) and the North Carolina Courage (#10). (Full draft order)
In preparation for the big day, here’s a look at how each team can help themselves with the right selection in the upcoming draft. Also, be sure to check out 11 players to watch in next week’s draft.
Jim Gabarra’s squad holds the first and sixth pick in Round 1 of the draft, so if the event goes as one would suspect, 2017 MAC Hermann Trophy winner Andi Sullivan is headed to Washington. The Spirit struggled in 2017 to string together games, even with a roster bolstered by a talented group of players like U.S. women’s national team forward Mallory Pugh and a duo of 2016 Rio Olympic bronze medalists in Shelina Zadorksy and Stephanie Labbé. Sullivan could give the Spirit a controlled midfield which would bring a flow to the Spirit’s game that has been missing. With their second pick in the round, the Spirit would be keen to add another threatening attack player.
Last year, the Breakers had the first pick in the 2017 NWSL College Draft and selected Wisconsin’s Rose Lavelle. Though she battled a hamstring injury, when she was on the field, Lavelle did not disappoint in her rookie season, adding a new dimension and flare to the once-struggling Breakers midfield. This year, the Breakers hold the No. 2 pick, and South Carolina’s Savannah McCaskill seems the likely choice. Adding a rookie like McCaskill who can not only hold the ball, but can also distribute and turn on a dime will help give the Breakers an extra step to help them out of their struggles. The Breakers have a steady line-up of players in each position that can do their job; Angela Salem can patrol the midfield, Julie King can hold down the backline, and Abby Smith can make big saves. But what the Breakers really need is a star power forward or midfielder that can work with Lavelle in a one-two passing rhythm and, most importantly, get the ball in the back of the net.
The Dash are already taking new strides this season with the addition of Vera Pauw as head coach. Pauw brings over 15 years of international experience to Houston, and as a former defender in her own right for the Dutch national team she will surely look to piece together a roster that is sufficient from top to bottom. Last season, the Dash selected USWNT goalkeeper Jane Campbell out of Stanford in the first round. This year, Michaela Abam, a forward/midfielder/defender out of West Virginia, would be a solid choice for the Dash given her versatility. Kealia Ohai was a key forward for the Dash before tearing her ACL last year, so with a healthy knee she will be a key piece to their offense this season. Abam and Ohai would work well together up top as Abam has an act for drawing defenders in with her 1v1 pace, while Ohai knows where to position herself to score.
Sky Blue FC
Sky Blue FC begins the 2018 season under a new head coach, Denise Reddy, who has unique international coaching experience in Sweden, Denmark and the United States. The New Jersey team has the No. 4 and No. 5 pick which puts them in a great position to change their course of being a mid-pack team to a club in the running for an NWSL Championship. Last year, the club chose two defenders out USC, Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills, so perhaps a switch-up this year and a duo of forwards or midfielders that can get some goals flowing. Kathellen Sousa out of UCF or Brianna Visalli from Pepperdine would both fit in nicely with Sky Blue. Sousa is a technical midfielder who would be able to find 2017 NWSL MVP Sam Kerr, who scored a record-breaking 17 goals last season, with a single-look. Visalli would add depth to the attack—she’s a workhorse with a vision for the game you can’t teach.
Chicago Red Stars
The Chicago Red Stars may not get talked about as much as the Pride’s offense or the smothering defenses of the Thorns and Courage, but the Red Stars are top quality and made the playoffs last season. Chicago holds the No. 7 pick and then No. 13, No. 18 and No. 19 and, lucky for them, the stars could align nicely with the amount of choices in the first two rounds. Given the depth of national team experience in Chicago’s midfield and up-top, a player like Indigo Gibson out of California could be their first pick. Gibson is a lockdown center back who played every minute for the Golden Bears in 2017. The All-American led her team to a five-game shutout streak and has earned 39 shutouts in her career. Adding a defender like Gibson who could hop in next to Casey Short almost instantaneously and make an impact could be a key move to help keep the Red Stars near the top of the table.
Portland Thorns FC
There’s a saying that goes a little something like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and this should be the mindset of the Thorns looking at 2018. The 2017 NWSL Champions get the No. 9 and No. 10 pick in the draft and there’s no way that any rookies actually hurt them this year. There is definitely room for a top defender and forward to be added to the mix—perhaps a player like Duke’s Imani Dorsey, who casually chipped in 14 goals this past season for the Blue Devils and helped her team ranked second nationally for its offense. A stellar rookie forward to balance out the lockdown defense of Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch would be a solid first choice for Portland.
North Carolina Courage
The reigning NWSL Shield winners will approach the draft looking to add players that will match the impact 2017 Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch brought to the team. Hatch tied a league record with seven goals in her first season. The Courage hold the tenth pick in the draft and, after exercising options on 12 players in the offseason, head coach Paul Riley is bringing back the core of his team. The Courage could look to add a midfielder into the mix to support Samantha Mewis and keep the team quick on transition. A player like Rebecca Quinn out of Duke would be a steal if she is still available that late in the draft. Quinn played a key role in the 2016 Rio Olympics for team Canada and dominated the defensive midfield for the Blue Devils this past season.
Utah Royals FC
Welcome to the show, Utah Royals FC! Utah inherited the players from FC Kansas City after the club ceased its operations in November, in addition to the draft spots. However, after a trade with Sky Blue FC to acquire Kelley O’Hara and Taylor Lytle in an exchange for Shea Groom, Christina Gibbons and the No. 4 draft pick, the new franchise will not get to choose until the second round at No. 14. Assuming a player like Gabby Seiler out of Florida hasn’t already been scooped up yet, head coach Laura Harvey could want to bring a versatile player like her into the mix. Seiler had a decorated career at Florida in the midfield, yet also has experience playing as a center back and outside back. Utah is looking good defensively with the recent additions of Becky Sauerbrunn and O’Hara, so a midfielder or forward is also likely on Harvey’s prospect list.
As long as Marta and Alex Morgan are on the field for the Pride, any additional attacking player added to the squad will be stacking the deck. Choosing a defender would be a smart move for the Pride, and doable given this year’s draft is defender-heavy. (Unfortunately for the Pride, but fortunately for everyone else, Tom Sermanni’s team doesn’t get a pick until the third round of the draft.) If Penn State’s Brittany Basinger hasn’t been selected in the first two rounds, she would be a steal for the Pride. The Nittany Lion defender helped her team to 13 shutouts in 2017 and, given her experience with the U.S. Under-23 WNT over the years, Basinger could help out the Pride defense.
Seattle Reign FC
Seattle Reign FC has been in the spotlight for much of the offseason from Laura Harvey parting ways with the club she led to back-to-back NWSL Shields, to a huge international signing of England forward and UEFA Women’s Euro tournament Golden Boot winner, Jodie Taylor. The Reign have proven to be a top competitor each season, however it will be interesting to see if new head coach Vlatko Andonovski continues to add players who fit with their existing exciting, yet fairly non-traditional, style of play. Andonovski and Seattle will have to wait it out until the fourth and final round of the draft to make their lone selection, so it’ll be a toss-up to see who is still available for Andonovski to roll the dice on.
The 2018 NWSL College Draft will take place on Thursday, Jan. 18, at 10 a.m. ET at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia.