Congratulations! You’re one of the best young talents in your industry and now it’s time for you to enter the professional world. Unfortunately, if you’re a women’s soccer player, this means you’ll have no say in where you ply your trade, or for who. If you want to remain in this country, wait until you hear your name called and hope everything works out.
This only sounds normal through the lens of American sports; anywhere outside of that, it’s a ridiculous thought and talent across any industry would despise such a system. However, this is what we force upon college athletes across major team sports.
If the NWSL wants to keep the best talent this country produces, the draft has to change. And by change I mean thrown into a blender and poured into an active volcano. History says we may see another top-tier talent flee the league for a better option in the 2023 draft on January 12.
UCLA striker Mia Fishel was drafted fifth overall in the first round of the 2021 NWSL Draft to the Orlando Pride. Except Fishel never played for the Pride. Instead, she used the draft to assess her options. With the start of her potential future in the NWSL set for her, Fishel sought other offers before eventually agreeing to join Tigres Femenil in Mexico. A year later, Fishel won the league’s Golden Boot and helped lead them to a championship.
“I wasn't expecting to be here [Mexico] a couple of months ago, but with the whole NWSL draft, I felt like I wanted to take control of my own destiny and where I want to play, and with the draft, you just can't do that,” Fishel explained to GOAL.
Fishel isn’t the only one. Catarina Macario went straight from Stanford to European club football (Lyon) without ever declaring for the draft. As did Canadian talents Jessie Fleming (UCLA to Chelsea) and Deanne Rose (University of Florida to Reading).
With more options across the global game, players may decide they want to challenge themselves or feel they’re a better fit elsewhere, or be signed at a salary more commensurate with their on-pitch value. While these trends may continue despite changes to the draft, it remains an unnecessary barrier enforced by this particular league, and in only this country.
With options expanding, the NWSL insisting on keeping the draft is the definition of hustling backward.
The global popularity of soccer places American soccer leagues in vastly different player markets than the NFL or NBA. There is no international demand for American football players so the NFL has no competitor. The NBA is the premier basketball association in the world and international prospects enter the draft for a chance to enter the league. The NWSL is one of the premier soccer leagues in the world of women’s soccer, and the only one that asks potential players to enter a draft.
Across leagues around the world, there’s growing international appetite for collegiate talents. This interest creates a dichotomy in approach. Whereas international teams put their best foot forward to recruit a player, NWSL teams aren’t required to do much more beyond being on the clock and submitting a player’s name for the Commissioner to read at a podium.
Of course, smart front offices put in more effort, but it’s not required. A player having full autonomy would set the baseline for a more meaningful approach.
Another lesser-considered side effect of a draft is the higher probability of a player joining a team as a wrong — or bad — fit. If, for instance, two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas was in a draft, there’s a good chance she plays elsewhere for years before making her way to Barcelona. She’s still an exceptional talent, but Barcelona gets the most out of her talents. While any team would love to have her, placing her on the wrong team via a draft would be a waste.
It may seem an extreme hypothetical, but there have been plenty of examples in the NWSL. Gotham draft pick Brianna Pinto has looked a different player in midfield with the North Carolina Courage, midfielder Cari Roccaro hadn’t scored a goal since entering the NWSL in 2016 but scored four for Angel City this season, and Taylor Kornieck struggled in Orlando yet earned a spot on the USWNT with her performances for San Diego.
The draft severely interferes with a teams’ ability to make better decisions about fit within a coaching style and/or style of play, and provides players with little more than the hope that they’re entering a setup that maximizes their talents.
We know targeting drafts is sacrilege of a peak American spectacle. Drafts have become multi-day extravaganzas, but also year-round hope peddling through mock drafts, will they stay/will they leave speculation and player performances.
In American sports, it’s also good to think of every key event on the calendar as a television show – of which drafts are a big part. Cameras aimed at families huddled around a prospect hearing their name being called are beautiful pieces of content. As are the wide smiles and giddiness of a player coming on a stage and donning pieces of their new team’s gear. Or maybe you get Ashley Sanchez dropping a memorable quote when asked what she was most excited about as a pro.
However, we can still have this level of excitement, and maybe even more.
For this to work, prospects would be allowed to negotiate with teams but not sign until a specific date. That would give media and television the content they need and crave. Plus, players and teams would have a stake in their performance beyond a draft order, increasing the flexibility of team management, recruitment and squad building.
It’s suddenly not uncommon for rookies to step into the NWSL and have an immediate impact. Trinity Rodman was an unstoppable piece to a championship team in her rookie year, Naomi Girma won Defender of the Year and Rookie of the Year, Diana Ordonez was in the mix for the Golden Boot before a shoulder injury, and Alex Loera was a crucial part of a Kansas City team that went from bottom of the table to the championship game.
The College Cup has been full of players who appear more than ready to replicate these successes if given the chance, but the longer the draft sticks around, the more future talents might be tempted to star elsewhere.
Unfortunately, we're not yet at a point where NWSL Signing Day is a reality, though. The draft is scheduled for Thursday, January 13 at 6 p.m. ET. To help you prepare, we've compiled some notes on our favorite prospects and the current state of the league through free agency.