Sky Blue FC manager Freya Coombe is potentially sitting on a gold mine heading into Wednesday’s NWSL draft: three first-round picks and four of the first 13 overall.
But it could also turn out to be fool’s gold, because no one knows how deep the draft pool actually is — not even Coombe and many other coaches leaguewide.
The confusion stems chiefly from the NWSL’s decision to not mandate that college seniors formally register to be in the draft, which starts at 7 p.m. (live streaming at twitch.tv/nwslofficial). Instead, any college senior is eligible for selection whether or not she plans to be in the league.
When the NWSL published a list of players officially in the draft pool on Tuesday morning, top seniors such as North Carolina’s Emily Fox, Stanford’s Madison Haley, and Penn State’s Sam Coffey weren’t on it.
In addition to that, marquee underclasswomen such Stanford’s Naomi Girma — the U.S. women’s national team’s 2020 Young Player of the year — and Florida State’s Jaelin Howell decided to stay in school. And Girma’s Cardinal teammate, U.S. phenom Catarina Macario, chose to sign with French club Lyon.
Of the 49 players on that published list, North Carolina’s Brianna Pinto and Stanford’s Kiara Pickett are the big prizes. Pinto, an attacking midfielder, has already been part of multiple top-level U.S. national team camps. Pickett, a senior who did officially say yes to the draft, has played for the U.S. at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups.
Fox could go No. 1 to expansion team Racing Louisville. Haley, the daughter of former Dallas Cowboys star Charles Haley, could be a top-five pick.
But if they don’t want to play for the clubs that select them, they could choose to not show up and ride out this calendar year in Europe or elsewhere. A drafted player’s rights remain with that club until the start of next year’s preseason.
Drafted players also have the option to stay with their college teams through the NCAA spring season before joining their pro clubs, which Pinto has said she will do. The NWSL has made room for that in its schedule by scheduling a new edition of the Challenge Cup tournament for April, then starting the regular season in May.
The old saying is that you can’t tell the players without a program. But if they aren’t in the program when it’s printed, well …
“What is considered ‘in’ right now, I don’t know,” Coombe said, and fans likely won’t blame her.
“For us, it’s a lot of conversations with coaches, a little bit with agents, I think some with the players themselves,” Coombe said. “And just speaking with other coaches as well.”
Sky Blue does have needs, especially in central midfield. The club traded longtime captain Sarah Woldmoe to the Chicago Red Stars so that she and her husband could return to their Midwest roots, and lost a great young player in Jennifer Cudjoe to Louisville in the expansion draft.
There’s been one international signing this offseason in South Korean midfielder Sodam Lee, but more reinforcements are required.
There might also be a need to bolster at outside back. It’s likely that Margaret Purce will move up to right wing to replace the departed Mallory Pugh, who was traded with Woldmoe to Chicago for the Nos. 4 and 8 picks and other considerations.
But let’s go back to the midfield. The hole there looks like one that Pinto is suited to fill. And there are probably some Sky Blue fans wondering if the club might trade up to make a run at her, especially if Louisville doesn’t take her No. 1.
Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue has a history of draft-day deals, including last year’s four-team blockbuster that brought Pugh to New Jersey. Could there be another one Wednesday? It might not be Coombe’s call, but she certainly opened the door.
“I think we’re in a great position with the number of assets that we have in terms of our draft picks and what value we can turn that into,” Coombe said. “Alyse was a magician last year with being able to turn that into great value to fill our needs.”
Whatever happens in the draft, Coombe is preparing to load up a big attacking weapon that she didn’t have last year: Carli Lloyd. The Delran native missed the entire 2020 NWSL campaign due to injuries and the first major surgery of her career.
Now Lloyd is finally back to full health. She is at U.S. national team camp right now, and from all indications she’s looking sharp as she makes her case to be on the Olympic team.
“She feels really good, I think, being able to give her body a bit of a rest, and she certainly enjoyed having a bit of time at home in her busy schedule,” Coombe said. “But I think she’s going to come really hungry and ready to get herself on a plane to the Olympics, and I think that’s only going to benefit Sky Blue.”