The 2023 NWSL draft and the battle to sign Alyssa Thompson | women’s football

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Welcome to Moving the Goalposts, the Guardian’s free women’s football newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version once a week, just pop your email in below:

US sports culture is full of unique peculiarities and there are few traditions more American than the draft. This Thursday evening in Philadelphia, the National Women’s Soccer League hosts its 2023 edition.

How does it work?

Held for footballers seeking professional clubs in the NWSL, eligible athletes independently register for the list from which a maximum of 48 names will be chosen . The 12 NWSL clubs are given one pick each round based on a variety of factors, including their position the previous season. The last-placed team and expansion clubs typically select first. That said, draft picks are often traded for players, money, or future draft picks, and fluctuations in the number and order of selections vary accordingly.

Those fluctuations are no exception this year. Angel City recently made moves to acquire the first pick in the draft and clubs such as OL Reign, who have negotiated away their selections, will only pick twice, waiting until the third round to make their first pick. Orlando Pride, on the other hand, could make as many as seven picks.

Eligibility rules for the draft require players either to be a US citizen or permanent resident, or a foreign national enrolled at a US university during the 2022-23 academic year. Players cannot be under a current professional contract and cannot have signed one previously. They must have exhausted or renounced collegiate eligibility during the 2022 academic year. That includes high school graduates who forego their college eligibility. Finally players must have turned 18 on or before 31 December 2022, although a new NWSL rule allows for two players younger than that to be recruited (with stringent protective stipulations).

During the first round, teams have five minutes to make their selection. Three minutes are granted for each team to announce their selection for the following three rounds, though each team is allowed up to three time-outs, each also lasting three minutes.

The impact of the draft

The collegiate system and ensuing draft are stalwarts of development and club construction in the women’s game in America The system is unique, and though it has been successful historically, it has its critics. As the footballing world catches up, some argue the inherited practices of American development will need adjustment to thrive.

Certainly, some adjustments have already been made. That includes allowing for a select few “Under-18’s” to join professional clubs, a move instigated in large part by the teenage phenom Olivia Moultrie, who Swedish NWSL over the age restriction.

Portland Thorns midfielder Olivia Moultrie dribbles past Orlando Pride defender Courtney Petersen during last season's NWSL match at Portland's Providence Park in June 2022.
Portland Thorns’ midfielder Olivia Moultrie dribbles past Orlando Pride’s Courtney Petersen last season. Photograph: Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Beyond the apparatus of overall American development it embodies, the draft also removes some modicum of choice in where the athlete will live and play. NWSL athletes have lobbied for more autonomy for players in recent years, and one wonders if abolishing the draft may be on the agenda, allowing college graduates more say in where they end up.

Regardless, the impact of the draft on club success is abundantly clear. Clubs that select first and early reap clear benefits.

Take last year’s draft. The expansion club San Diego Wave went first, and selected Naomi Girma out of Stanford. Girma went on to be named both Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year in NWSL, the first newcomer to collect two individual awards in their first year. Girma made strides with the national team in 2022 as well, emerging as a top candidate for a starting role in the World Cup and putting in a superb performance against England at Wembley.

Emily Fox was selected first in 2021, bolstering Racing Louisville’s backline. Trinity Rodman was drafted right behind her for the Washington Spirit. Both are in the national team picture, and Rodman has recently ranked on a handful of “best of“worldlists.

San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma in action during the NWSL Challenge Cup match against Portland Thorns in March 2022.
San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma in action during the NWSL Challenge Cup match against Portland Thorns in March 2022. Photograph: Orlando Ramirez/USA Today Sports

In 2020, Portland Thorns were able to select both first and second picks in the draft, picking the attacking talents of Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver. Each were pivotal to Thorns’ Championship season in 2022. Smith has collected endless accolades for his impact, including NWSL MVP, Championship MVP, and 2022’s USWNT Player of the Year.

Other first-round picks from years previous include names such as Rose Lavelle, Emily Sonnett and Crystal Dunn.

Say what you will about the draft. But it is difficult to argue selecting first doesn’t have a clear and near-term impact on the success for the club in that position.

Things to watch in 2023

Angel City FC will get the first pick this year, following a multi-team trade to snag that spot. The LA Times has reported ACFC will use that pick to acquire the talents of the LA native Alyssa Thompson, who made her USWNT debut at Wembley Stadium in October at 17 years old, coming on for Megan Rapinoe in the final minutes.

Angel City’s general manager, Angela Hucles Mangano, said of the momentous decision to scoop the first draft pick: “We were extremely proud of the product we put on the field in our inaugural season, but we have our sights set on making the playoffs and winning championships. We know that in order to achieve these goals, we have to set ourselves up for on-field success for many years to come, which is why we wanted to be able to control our destiny with the No 1 overall draft pick of the 2023 Draft . We are focused on making as big of an impact on the field as possible, and we look forward to being able to do so in our second season.”

The fun won’t stop with Thompson, as clubs such as Orlando Pride and Kansas City Current will have a lot of selections, allowing them to bolster their rosters for the 2023 season. Names to watch include the Mexico international Reyna Reyes coming out of Alabama, and Duke University’s Herman Trophy-winning striker Michelle Cooper.

Reyna Reyes in action for Mexico against the USWNT in 2021.
Reyna Reyes in action for Mexico against the USWNT in 2021. Photograph: Dennis Schneidler/USA Today Sports

The Northern Ireland international Ellie Mason ran the ball from one end of the pitch to the other to score for Lewes this week in the English Championship. Watching her split defenders and running the field is worth a few replays.

Got a question for our writers – or want to suggest a topic to cover? Get in touch by emailing moving.goalposts@theguardian.com or posting BTL.



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