Before this season, NWSL players’ “rights” were held onto by their club until the player either signed a new contract or was traded. In rare cases, a player would be waived, but this process was still nothing like free agency, as their “rights” would pass through a waiver wire until a team called dibs. Players held no — or very little — say over their careers or where they played.
Now that’s all changed, paving the way for the NWSL’s first-ever true free agency period that begins on November 15. Earlier this year, the NWSL and NWSLPA reached agreement on the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement which gave players long overdue rights among other fixes that brought infrastructure to a league that desperately needed it. Policies and mechanisms to report and punish harassment and abuse were instituted as well.
This offseason, players qualify for free agency if they have at least six years of service within the NWSL and an expiring contract in 2022. The NWSL & NWSLPA already had a disagreement on whether this included players who had club options ahead of 2023, but an arbitrator ruled in favor of the NWSLPA and those 22 players.
Some players have already re-signed with their teams. Ify Onumonu and Mandy Freeman are staying at Gotham FC, Denise O’Sullivan extended her contract with North Carolina Courage, Sam Hiatt re-signed with OL Reign and Rocky Rodriguez committed to stay in Portland. But there are still big names who could begin signing with new clubs on Tuesday.
With trades, new hires and a College Draft, NWSL offseasons are rarely dull, and the addition of free agency should stir things up even more. Here are three moves I think might happen, even if only because I really want them to.
Debinha is the biggest name on the free agency list. She’s a two-time NWSL Champion, three-time NWSL Shield winner, NWSL Championship MVP and two-time NWSL Challenge Cup MVP. More than that, she’s just a phenomenally talented and creative soccer player.
Whatever Gotham is building has been enough to convince Ify Onumonu and Mandy Freeman to stay, and has lured Juan Carlos Amoros away from the project in Houston. I can’t think of a splashier move than landing Debinha in the league’s first free agency period. Gotham scored the fewest goals last season, largely because the service between midfield and attack was sporadic at best. Debinha instantly changes that, and would allow them to unlock the best of Onumonu and Midge Purce.
Gautrat missed most of the NWSL regular season with injury, but returned to the pitch in September and steadily increased her minutes to play 105 in the Red Stars’ quarterfinal playoff game that was won by San Diego Wave. The Wave won, but head coach Casey Stoney also likely got an up close look at what Gautrat could bring.
Gautrat was formidable in the match and arguably Chicago’s best player. According to Fotmob, she had 99 touches, blocked two shots, made three clearances and four interceptions, recovered possession nine times, won seven of her eight ground duels and completed 75% of her passes versus a tough and intense San Diego Wave team. Stoney knows how to build a team and is an exceptional recruiter, if anyone can convince Gautrat to leave Chicago, my money is on Stoney.
Due to a string of unfortunate and ill-timed injuries, Tobin Heath last cracked 10 games played for a domestic club in 2019. OL Reign’s mid-June signing of Heath saw her come on as a sub in five games before missing the remainder of the season. However, Heath still possesses devastating dribbling technique, creativity and intensity, and should still be highly sought after.
Heath is unlikely to leave the west coast, and she’s already played for both Portland and OL Reign. Though she’s played for San Diego head coach Casey Stoney at Manchester United, I’m expecting the other California team, Angel City FC, to push hard for her signing.
When Christen Press went down to a torn ACL, they sprung into action to sign Sydney Leroux, who played well before picking up an injury herself. With both players recovering, adding Heath gives Angel City one of the most highly-skilled and experienced attacks in the league. Also, Heath nutmegs at the Banc of California Stadium just might register on the Richter scale.