NWSL Draft: The spectacle and the reality

The first NWSL Draft was held in a private room in the Indianapolis Convention Center, with U.S. Soccer staff ferrying info to a neighboring room where a handful of reporters had gathered.

The next two NWSL Drafts had many more people, all crammed into a small couple of rooms in Philadelphia.

This year, it looks like this:

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Which is great. It’ll be a terrific experience for fans. Reporters won’t be dizzy from claustrophobia and heat exhaustion by the third round.

But like the MLS Draft, held yesterday in the same room, there’s a bit of cold water to splash on the proceedings: A lot of these players simply aren’t ready.

I’m not bringing that up to spoil anyone’s big day. A bunch of people with sublime talent and awe-inspiring work ethics are going to get great opportunities today. I’m bringing it up because, in the spirit of the other NSCAA sessions I’m attending, I’m looking at the overall structure of the sport.

If you haven’t listened to the most recent Keeper Notes podcast, race over to your podcasting engine of choice and do so now. Jen Cooper chats with Hal Kaiser and Jen Gordon to go over each team’s needs and the prospects who can fill them.

But it’s clear from the conversation that few teams will walk away from this draft with their immediate needs filled. Kaiser names only three players who stand out — sure-fire No. 1 pick Emily Sonnett (D, Virginia), NCAA Tournament force Raquel Rodriguez (M, Penn State) and Cari Roccaro (D, Notre Dame). And now Roccaro is hurt.

You can say it’s a thin draft class. But in terms of immediate impact, they’ve all been thin classes.

So it’s little wonder that two of the most successful coaches in the NWSL, Seattle’s Laura Harvey and Portland/Washington’s Mark Parsons, haven’t been building through the draft. They realize this is a league that’s quite cruel to 22-year-olds. (And notice that a lot of NWSL teams have now hired coaches from England and Scotland!)

Parsons saw the problem first hand when he took over a young Washington Spirit team. They had young attacking talent to spare — Tiffany McCarty and Caroline Miller had outstanding college resumes, and Stephanie Ochs and Colleen Williams joined McCarty on the U.S. Under-23 team before debuting with the Spirit. Each player had plenty of upside — the book is still open for McCarty and Ochs, long-term. Miller and Williams unfortunately had catastrophic injuries.

But a team simply can’t rely on inexperienced players to do more than fill a hole here and there. Some of the exceptional rookies of the past — Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian — already had national team experience. Sonnett and Rodriguez bring that experience this time around, and they should be ready to play from Day 1 in the NWSL. North Carolina’s Katie Bowen, who has played for New Zealand, also might be ready to step in right away.

So this year, the priority for NWSL teams beyond the top few picks is to look for players they can bring along over the next couple of years.

The next priority is to step up the development curve so more players are ready.

Parsons was candid late in that first season with the Spirit, lamenting the fundamentals that some of his younger players hadn’t learned. The compressed college season hurts players. Coaches, especially on the men’s side, are pushing for a year-round NCAA schedule so they can play more games with more rest, not relying on waves of substitutions to get exhausted players off the field.

Another factor: Summer play has withered. The decline and demise of the W-League hurts. WPSL play is spotty — some teams can play a quality game, some can’t. The new United Women’s Soccer is trying to fill the void.

Cracking an NWSL lineup as a rookie will never be easy — nor should it be. It’s a credit to the league that the rosters are so strong, filled with experienced players.

But as the league expands (we hope) down the road, development is an issue that needs to be addressed. So when the players drafted today are experienced and ready to lead their teams, they’ll have better and better players coming in to join them.

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