NWSL Expansion Draft Preview: No Agents are Free, Plus Potential Picks
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NWSL Expansion Draft Preview: No Agents are Free, Plus Potential Picks

NWSL Expansion Draft Preview: No Agents are Free, Plus Potential Picks by Jaiden Cirioli

(Editor's note: Welcome to Jaiden Cirioli who will be contributing NWSL and women's soccer columns to the Victory Press!)

The NWSL's expansion draft will take place on Thursday, December 16, during which newcomers Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC get to select one player from each team. The 2022 season will be the second straight year with an expansion draft after Racing Louisville joined the league in 2021.

The concept of an expansion draft is odd. A team is allowed to protect 9 players, and any of the remaining players can have their rights drafted without their consent. The NWSL is one of the few professional sports teams without any sort of free agency, whether based on years played or one that affects all players. That means that once a player is drafted to an NWSL team, their rights remain there forever, even if they've retired. If a player wants to play in the NWSL, they must play with the team that holds their rights.

Without free agency, many great players have elected to play outside of the United States so that they can have control over their lives, both personal and professional. The draft system that the NWSL uses ends up losing players more than it helps retain them, and the risk is especially high in an expansion draft. Last year, Racing Louisville drafted four players' rights: Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Caitlin Foord, and Alanna Kennedy. These players all play for their respective national teams, and had been in the league for many successful years before signing contracts abroad during 2020 in order to get playing time. As Louisville selected these players during the expansion draft, they are now bound to play for Racing unless their rights are traded elsewhere, like Press’ were. Press, Foord, Heath, and Kennedy are all high profile players on a global stage, and the fact that they haven't had the leverage to choose where they want to play shows how little individual agency players have, no matter how long they've been in the NWSL.  

As the NWSL is perpetually creating new rules and contradicting itself, it announced on Monday that it was ending allocation for the USWNT players. Allocated players had their salary paid by US Soccer instead of their individual club. As a result, they were prevented them from being members of the NWSLPA. Much discussion around the expansion draft has revolved around allocated Federation players; each team could only protect one of them, and would be given $75,000 if one of their allocated players was selected by either Angel City or the Wave. With allocation now ending in January, a lot of the technical rules of the expansion draft become null, which begs the question: why are we still having one?

When I was looking at colleges to potentially play at, I felt like I had agency. I was able to pick a program and school that I felt not only aligned with what I wanted, but that seemed to have my best interests in mind. Even though I elected to not play college soccer due to mental health reasons, I felt as though there was a mutual understanding that let me have a say in what my future was like. The thought of not having these options and being forced into a contract somewhere I would not want to be is frightening. I can't imagine how the players themselves are feeling when they hear their name called in a draft. All of their relationships and career prospects – really their entire lives – can be uprooted in an instant.

One large difference between this year's expansion draft and last year's is the number of trades that have been happening before the draft day. In order to get full immunity from having players taken on the day of the draft, the Chicago Red Stars, Kansas City Current, Gotham FC, and the North Carolina Courage have all traded players to Los Angeles and San Diego. The Portland Thorns, Racing Louisville, and Washington Spirit have immunity from one of the teams for the same reasons. By making these moves ahead of time, conversations can be had with players and people are allowed to move out of teams and environments that they don’t want to be in, knowingly. Many of the players who have already made the move to California expressed interest in leaving their previous team for one reason or another, and the fact that they were granted these requests is a good sign for the NWSL collective bargaining agreement and a potential move towards free agency.

Even though I personally disagree with the ways in which the NWSL handles player movements and drafts, there's currently no other system in place for these expansion sides to fill out their rosters. So, I'm going to try and predict what each side will do.

Angel City FC has acquired the following players already through trades and international signings: DiDi Haracic (GK), Sarah Gorden (DF), MA Vignola (DF), Julie Ertz (MF), Cari Roccaro (MF), Katie Cousins (MF), Simone Charley (FW), Tyler Lussi (FW), and Christen Press (FW).

ACFC is allowed to pick from the Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, OL Reigns non-forwards, and Washington Spirit’s non-Federation players.

San Diego Wave has acquired: Kailen Sheridan (GK), Abby Dahlkemper (DF), Tegan McGrady (DF), Angharad James (MF), Makenzy Doniak (FW), Katie Johnson (FW), Jodie Taylor (FW), Alex Morgan (FW), and Kelsey Turnbow (FW).

SDWFC is allowed to pick from the Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, OL Reign, Racing Louisville, and the Portland Thorns.

If that isn't already confusing enough, here's what I think will go down on Draft Day.

Angel City has the first pick, and with it, I would select Madison Hammond (DF) from OL Reign. Hammond was a great defender for the Reign, even with the limited minutes she saw in 2021. She has great recovery runs and positioning on the field, something that was often overlooked amongst OL Reign's international-heavy team. Working alongside Sarah Gorden in the backline will help Hammond improve, and she could be a member of the inaugural starting XI for ACFC.

With the second pick, San Diego Wave would be wise to Megan Oyster (DF) from the Houston Dash. Currently, San Diego is heavy on the front line and could use experience in the NWSL at the back. Megan Oyster was a starter at center back for the Dash, and helped the team to several clean sheets. Having experience on an expansion side is always valuable, especially when a player is so familiar with the league. Oyster went to college in Southern California, and could be looking to return as well.

With the third pick, Angel City selects Jordan DiBiasi (MF) from the Washington Spirit. A former Stanford Cardinal, DiBiasi has experience at the youth level USWNT, and is a proven scorer from the midfield. Although she was on the season-ending injury list this year, her prognosis and return to play is good, and could easily slot into the Angel City midfield once healthy.

With the fourth pick, San Diego selects Brittany Wilson (GK) from the Orlando Pride. With their number one goalkeeper already established with Sheridan, the Wave need a strong second keeper for when Sheridan is away with Team Canada. In her one NWSL appearance she made five saves and won save of the week. Training with Sheridan will help give Wilson the confidence and skills to be a top NWSL goalkeeper.

At fifth, Angel City selects Jasmyne Spencer from the Houston Dash. Although Angel City already have a plethora of forwards, Spencer had an outstanding season with the Dash, and it’s shocking that she wasn't protected. Her speed and ball control allow her to send it crosses from anywhere, and working with a target forward like Press or Charley will definitely boost Angel City's ability to score goals.

With the sixth pick, San Diego selects Tziarra King (FW) from OL Reign. King has played for two teams in her two years of the league, but wasn't utilized much at OL Reign. Scoring in her debut game, King is an aerial threat and a proven finisher within the box. Even though the Wave have already traded for many forwards, King is a great option to get on the end of Dahlkemper's trademark long balls as well as serve in crosses herself for players like Morgan and Taylor. She's young, and has plenty of potential that needs to be realized.

With the seventh pick, Angel City select Abi Kim (FW) from the Orlando Pride. Kim didn't see many minutes with the Pride this season, mostly coming on in the last stretches of the game as an impact sub. However, in these appearances, Kim showed her talent for running at back lines and applying pressure, managing to score on several occasions. At only 23 years of age, Kim has plenty of time to reach her prime, and ACFC can help her foster her skills more than Orlando has been able to.

With this pick, Angel City is done selecting players from the Expansion Draft.

With the eighth pick, San Diego select Savannah McCaskill (MF) from Racing Louisville. As Racing's vice captain last season, McCaskill already has proven experience at being a leader to an expansion side – an invaluable trait. Coupled with her extraordinary work ethic and consistent threat presence on offense, it's a mystery why Racing left her unprotected. She would be a good get for San Diego as a mix of youth and experience.

With the ninth and final pick, San Diego selects Celeste Boureille (MF) from the Portland Thorns. The Thorns have no shortage of stellar players to choose from, which makes this choice difficult. Any position would provide a player who could be a starter straight away for the expansion side. Boureille has proven herself as a steady defensive midfielder with good ball distribution. A true No. 6 is the backbone to any good NWSL team, and Boureille is a quality pick for that position.

And that’s it! It should be a relatively short draft, luckily, since so many of the moves happened beforehand. With no real way of knowing what will pan out, these are the players that I would love to see move to California and become part of the NWSL's two newest clubs.