For the first time in five years, the NWSL is expanding. And after last night’s expansion draft, Racing Louisville has gone from an idea to a real team with a (mostly) real roster.
Let’s take a look at the business they’ve done, and assign some tentative grades in the process.
We can start with the unadulterated good. That starts before the draft itself, with Racing’s trade for Yuki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill (and a draft pick and international slots) from the Chicago Red Stars in exchange for roster protection.
Given the rules for the draft, Chicago was uniquely exposed—with quite a few critical players that would have necessarily gone unprotected. In response, they tried to deal from strength and secure their other assets. That was probably a reasonable choice, but with the draft now concluded it looks like Louisville ended up extracting the most value from Chicago. Nagasato has been a key contributor for Chicago for years, and McCaskill took a big step toward unlocking her potential this year. That’s two players you can build an offense around.
They also supplemented their pre-draft efforts with an astute pickup in Cheyna Matthews. The Jamaican international and former striker for the Washington Spirit was available on the re-entry wire and will help strengthen the forward line. Matthews has only really played one season since 2017 due to pregnancy and family commitments, so it’s no sure thing that she’ll be able to come back at the top level. But she’s a quality player and certainly worth taking a shot.
Louisville also picked well in their selections from North Carolina. Obviously, the Courage have a stacked roster so there were plenty of options, but Racing probably picked the two best players available, in Addisyn Merrick and Lauren Milliet. You could make a strong argument for Ally Watt, but her injury likely will limit her ability to contribute in 2021. Merrick and Milliet are ready to step in from day one, and can be key pieces of a long-term plan.
Some of Racing’s other good picks fit the same mold: high-ceiling players who are mature enough to hit the ground running but young enough to have long careers ahead of them. That certainly applies to Julia Ashley from OL Reign and Kaleigh Riehl from Sky Blue, two players with enormous potential who have not yet had a chance to make their NWSL mark. Merrick, Ashley, and Riehl will probably need another year or two of seasoning, but could easily grow into one of the league’s marquee defensive lines.
CeCe Kizer from Houston is another solid pick in this vein. She has showed flashes of brilliance and probably deserves more time than she was likely to see with Houston.
You could also make the case along these lines for Jennifer Cudjoe. She is a bit older than the rest of this group but still just 26, and with a solid season for Sky Blue under her belt. Certainly, the social media conversation around Cudjoe ranged from bewilderment to outrage at Sky Blue leaving her unprotected. I’m more skeptical. She was certainly good in 2020, but looks to me like a candidate for regression. And she takes up a valuable international spot. That certainly doesn’t make her a bad pick, but I do wonder if Louisville might look back next year and wish they had locked in one of the other excellent choices Sky Blue offered them.
Louisville selected two goalkeepers. Despite the plentiful excellent choices made available by Portland, neither ended up being from the Thorns (more on that in a moment). Instead, they took the dependable veteran Michelle Betos from OL Reign and the as yet untested Katie Lund from the Washington Spirit.
There’s no serious problem with the Betos pick. She’s primarily been a backup in recent years, but she’s still an excellent keeper and should bring strong veteran leadership to what looks like a young roster. It’s much harder to explain the Lund choice. Clearly they’ve seen something they like in her—and hopefully that will come good. But given the wealth of talent available on the Spirit list, it’s perplexing to see Louisville go fishing there for a backup keeper.
Along similar lines, Katie McClure is a perfectly nice player with lots of potential to be a good contributor. But she was maybe fifth on the list of players I’d have selected from Washington. Meggie Dougherty Howard was there for the taking! And Crystal Thomas!
The final inexplicable pick: Erin Simon from Houston. It’s not truly inexplicable of course. Louisville coach Christy Holly knows her from his time at Sky Blue. But if the general theme of the draft was high-ceiling players who can develop together, Simon just doesn’t fit in. She does bring some versatility—able to play in the central defense or out wide—but isn’t particularly proficient in any of those roles. By no means a bad player to have on your roster, but she seems strictly inferior to Ally Prisock who can do all the same stuff better and was there for the taking.
That leaves the four biggest names selected by Louisville. Two come from Orlando: Alanna Kennedy and Caitlin Foord. Both are currently playing in England, so Louisville has only acquired their NWSL rights. If one or both choose to simply stay on the other side of the Atlantic, it would obviously seriously undermine the value of the picks. But these are two excellent players, and both are still young enough that higher peaks might still come. So it makes some sense to gamble. That’s especially true if you look at the other options Orlando made available. Unsurprisingly, the weakest roster in the league did not offer bountiful choices. You could certainly make an argument for solid defenders like Shelina Zadorsky and Toni Pressley. But it’s not like either of them would be certain to come and play for Louisville. So it’s perfectly reasonable to gamble here. We just have to wait and see if it pays off.
And speaking of waiting for more information...the structure of the draft created strong incentives for Louisville to avoid taking US National Team players. Taking a single USWNTer immediately closed off another choice from a given club. And each such selection also effectively cost them $75,000 in free allocation cash. In spite of that, Louisville pushed all their chips in and picked Tobin Heath and Christen Press.
Again, they actually only selected the rights to these players. They are both currently playing for Manchester United and there's no particular reason to think they will come back to play for Louisville. In fact, they very much might prefer sticking to the European calendar (which leaves a break in the summer that matches up with the Olympics), rather than coming back for a few scattered NWSL games. So there’s every chance that we never see Press or Heath actually put on the Racing kit. If so, we probably won’t be able to fully assess these picks until their rights are once again swapped—perhaps through trade, perhaps in next year’s expansion draft.
But one thing we can assess right now: what Louisville passed up by taking these two. And here, the answers vary widely. Utah has plenty of nice players but no world-beaters. If taking Press cost them a chance at Brittany Ratcliffe, that’s a real loss, but probably one they can manage.
The Heath pick, however, is far dicier. Portland had by far the strongest roster of available players, with seven or eight choices who would probably slot immediately into a Louisville 2021 starting XI. Gabby Seiler was one of the best players in the league before going down to injury in 2019. Bella Bixby and Britt Eckerstrom are already starting-quality goalkeepers and could stay that way for a decade or more. Celeste Boureille has been one of the most underrated players in the league for several years. Christen Westphal is a solid utility defender and a superb attacking crosser. And the list only continues.
So yes, we have to see what Louisville actually gets from these picks. If Heath and Press come back together, score some dazzling goals and sell tens of thousands of kits, this will end up as a clear win. If Racing can leverage their rights into top talent, that will also be a success. But if it all sputters a bit—as it absolutely might—they will seriously regret having paid $150,000 for the chance to not build their team around Gabby Seiler.