Sky Blue FC hit the jackpot in Wednesday night’s NWSL draft, nabbing North Carolina’s Brianna Pinto after she surprisingly fell to the No. 3 pick.

A dynamic central midfielder, the 20-year-old Pinto has already been part of many U.S. national team camps, including during the 2017 SheBelieves Cup as a 16-year-old. A year later, she played for the U.S. at the under-20 World Cup.

Pinto will join Sky Blue after the NCAA’s upcoming spring soccer season ends, assuming it happens. Once she makes it to the pros, it won’t be a surprise if she gets on the field fairly quickly. Sky Blue came into the draft with central midfield as a priority.

“I’m so excited — it’s been a dream come true to become a professional soccer player,” Pinto said. “My goal is always to play, and to have an impact … Getting the option to get on the field in a professional jersey, it means everything to me.”

Pinto has also gained stature off the field, winning a seat on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Athlete Council in October in a campaign to give young players more of a voice in the governing body. Pinto ran as part of a group of five players that included Union goalkeeper Matt Freese, and all five were elected to the council.

Pinto was born in New Haven, Conn., and grew up in Durham, N.C., but her father, Hassan — a former U.S. under-18 player and North Carolina alum — grew up in northern New Jersey. Sky Blue is based in Harrison, N.J.

Brianna Pinto, center, in action for North Carolina.
UNC Athletic Communications
Brianna Pinto, center, in action for North Carolina.

“To be in that soccer community and embraced by that culture, I’m beyond excited to be a part of it,” Brianna said from the family home, where they took in the online draft broadcast.

She thanked her family for giving her “the opportunity, both financially and emotionally, because this game is tough at times — but they’ve been through it with me.”

“To be next to them when I got my name called was a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” she said. “Although COVID presented some different circumstances, we embraced it and we’re so excited to be a part of the NWSL draft.”

Sky Blue entered the night with three first-round draft picks, Nos. 3, 4, and 8. That haul was just as much trade bait as it was potential players, and general manager Alyse LaHue wasn’t afraid to deal. After picking Pinto, she traded the No. 4 pick to Kansas City for $175,000 in allocation money, cash that can be used to spend on players beyond the salary cap. That’s a big sum in the NWSL, as the base total available to each team this year is $400,000. (It can be traded once on a team’s budget.)

Then LaHue flipped the No. 8 pick to the Washington Spirit for $100,000 and the Spirit’s natural second-round pick in next year’s draft.

“Obviously, we were absolutely thrilled that we could get Brianna when she fell to us at No. 3,” Sky Blue manager Freya Coombe said. “We’re really, really pleased with the targets that we’ve acquired, the players we’ve acquired, and then going in and obviously getting some cash to help get some players for the future.”

Sky Blue’s next pick was early in the second round, No. 13 overall. They flipped that too, to Louisville, along with $35,000 in allocation money for midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe, whom Sky Blue lost in Louisville’s expansion draft after an outstanding rookie season last year.

“We’re realy glad that we coudl bring her back to the club and help continue her developmental journey that she started with us,” Coombe said. “We felt like we had some unfinished business with her, and wanted to continue to work with her into the future.”

They didn’t pick again until No. 23, a third-round selection, which they used on Virginia midfielder Taryn Torres. There were also two picks in the fourth round: UCLA defender Delanie Sheehan, a former U.S. under-20 teammate of Pinto’s, at No. 33; and Duke midfielder Tess Boade at No. 40, the last pick overall.

Expansion team Racing Louisville took Pinto’s North Carolina teammate, senior left back Emily Fox, at No. 1. It was a bit of a surprise that Louisville didn’t take Pinto, but that’s no mark against Fox. She has already played for the senior U.S. national team and is currently with the squad in Orlando preparing for two games against Colombia later this month. Fox watched the draft in a hotel with national team colleagues, and celebrated with them when her name was called.

The big surprise came at No. 2 when Washington took 18-year-old forward Trinity Rodman. A star of recent U.S. youth teams, she was recruited to Washington State but will leave the school before ever playing a game there. She’s also the daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

One player from the Philadelphia area was drafted: Voorhees native Amirah Ali by the Portland Thorns at No. 22 overall. Ali, who can play forward or midfielder, is a product of Eastern High and Rutgers. She was The Inquirer’s South Jersey girls’ soccer Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016.

“She could jump into the NWSL now, and be a physical presence with her mobility and her movement, her energy,” Thorns manager Mark Parsons said. “She receives the ball under pressure, back to goal, can twist and turn, can run at people, can finish.”

Penn State saw two players picked, midfielder Sam Coffey at No. 12 by Portland and forward Kerry Abello at No. 24 by the Orlando Pride. Coffey is a U.S. youth national team veteran, and has her own unique tie to South Jersey: five years ago, she trained with Carli Lloyd while her father Wayne, a former New York Daily News sportswriter, was helping Lloyd with her autobiography.

Amirah Ali, right, playing for Eastern High in October 2015.
Kevin Cook / For The Inquirer
Amirah Ali, right, playing for Eastern High in October 2015.