BALTIMORE — Draft days usually yield plenty of twists and turns, and the 2016 edition of the National Women’s Soccer League College Draft didn’t disappoint.
Things kicked off in rather predictable fashion, as Emily Sonnett went to the Thorns first overall, and Penn State’s Raquel Rodriguez came off second to Sky Blue FC, which traded up prior to the draft to get the No. 2 pick.
But the buzz at the NWSL Draft was the news that the Portland Thorns were lining up the potential addition of U.S. youth standout Mallory Pugh. At the start of the draft, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced new rules for its allocation order, and when the Thorns dealt its No. 3 pick to the Boston Breakers for the top spot in the order, rumors started to pickup that the Real Colorado and budding U.S. national team talent would end up skipping out on playing college soccer at UCLA and join the NWSL side.
As for the draft itself, it marked an opportunity for the reigning college player of the year to continue her career on domestic shores, the Houston Dash to add a trio of players in the first round and the Orlando Pride a few more players for its expansion season.
School, familiarity steers Rodriguez to NWSL
One of the big questions heading into the draft was the status of Hermann Trophy winner Raquel Rodriguez. A top two talent available, Sky Blue FC traded up a pick in the draft to secure the services of the Costa Rican international.
Obviously excited to jump-start her pro career, Rodriguez indicated that heading abroad was something she considered, but ended up electing to stay in the States, citing a number of seasons.
“I think it’s a good place to transition from college to being a professional," Rodriguez said. "I just know the lifestyle, the culture, the style of play, the environment. Also, I haven’t graduated from school so that’s the biggest factor."
Majoring in Sports Administration, Rodriguez said that she’ll complete an internship and graduate after playing the upcoming season with the New Jersey club.
Dash add to attack, defense
Another fascinating element of Thursday’s draft was what the Houston Dash would do with its three first round picks. With an arguably top heavy talent pool, it was certainly possible to strike it rich and bolster its roster in significant fashion.
Head coach Randy Waldrum eventually elected for a reunion with Cari Rocarro, who he previously coached at Notre Dame, along with the addition of firepower up top, drafting forwards Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie.
“I couldn’t be happier, I’m ecstatic about the choices, and both Rachel and Janine are going to come in and provide a lot of attack for us that we’ve lacked over the first couple of years,” Waldrum said. “If you look at their scoring record at the collegiate level, if they can simulate even a good percentage of that we’re going to be in good shape. We had to plan a little bit because we knew there’s a good chance Beckie might make the Olympic team for Canada, getting Rachel who will be here all year, we cover our bases up front with that.”
The one caveat with the Roccaro selection is her health. Word trickled out on the eve of the draft that she was having surgery to repair a torn labrum, an injury she played through during her senior season. With a 4-6 month rehab ahead of her, that didn’t deter the Dash.
“I’m thinking at the latest we’ll probably have her in June, but I think there’s a good likelihood we could have her maybe sometime in May if the rehab goes well,” Waldrum said. “At the same time, I think it’s one of those that we felt she was good enough to take her even if for some reason you didn’t have her till the full six months. In the long run that’s the kind of player we want to build our team around.”
When Waldrum coached her during her freshman season at South Bend, he played the U.S. youth star at every position. He’s planning on deploying her as a center back, though isn’t closed to the idea of using her elsewhere once she’s healthy and ready to contribute to her new team.
Expansion Orlando adds versatility in midfield to roster
Normally heading into an expansion season, the newest league side has the first pick in the draft and takes center stage. That wasn’t the case for Orlando Pride, as it had dealt away the rights to the first overall pick in a package deal with the Portland Thorns in exchange for U.S. forward Alex Morgan.
Instead, another deal brought the No. 10 pick to the Pride, where it picked California standout Samantha Witteman.
“Really excited with how today went,” Orlando Pride head coach Tom Sermanni told TopDrawerSoccer. “We were looking for players that we think can come into the squad and make an impact in games and players that we think that have got real potential to develop and bring some great skillsets to the team.”
Witteman, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2015, landing on the Pac-12 First Team, is a promising talent, who was called into camp with the U.S. U23 WNT for next week. Sermanni was impressed by her unique skillset she'll bring to the Pride roster.
“She’s got the ability to beat people, which is a great asset in the modern day game,” Sermanni said. “She can probably play wide, play centrally, play up front, play behind the strikers, so she brings flexibility. And with the other tools we saw, we see some real potential and growth into a real good professional.”
ACC provides more than a quarter of the draft
A debate on what the best conference in women’s college soccer is often gravitates towards the ACC, and the league provided 13 draft picks on the day. Half of the first round came from ACC schools, including three of the top ten picks all from Florida State (Michaela Hahn, Cheyna Williams and Carson Pickett).
In all, North Carolina supplied the most draft picks from one program with four, as Paige Nielsen, Katie Bowen, Alexa Newfield and Summer Green had their name called.