Breaking down COVID-19’s impact on the 2021 NWSL Draft

NCAA ruling protecting college eligibility figures to complicate the draft

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Kealia Watt

Kristie Mewis #19 of Houston Dash defends Kealia Watt #2 of Chicago Red Stars in the championship game of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 26, 2020 in Sandy, Utah.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

While there’s hope the National Women’s Soccer League will have a more normal 2021, the pandemic still will have implications for the upcoming NWSL Draft.

All 40 selections will be made virtually on Jan. 13 when the draft streams exclusively on Twitch at 6 p.m. The NCAA also has allowed players to apply for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. It’s unclear how this will affect the 10 teams’ draft decisions. 

“I haven’t dealt with this before,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said. “I think the fact that college players don’t have to let us know [if they’ll immediately forgo their college eligibility] until a week after the draft is a little bit backward, if I’m being honest. I’m not sure how much value the draft has this year because of that.”

Drafted players must decide by Jan. 22 if they’ll report to their team immediately or at the end of their spring college season (assuming it’s held). Dames said he thinks this could lead to players who dislike where they’ve been drafted choosing to re-enter the draft next year. 

Another issue will be how teams evaluate players before offering them contracts. Typically, a drafted player reports to preseason training, where the team can determine if it will make an offer, waive or trade the player or keep her on the team’s protected list for a period of time. This year, if a player opts in for her spring college season, she’ll miss preseason training. 

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Dames said. 

In a normal year, Dames and his staff would rate draft picks by position, projecting where they’ll fall and making moves to get players they need. But much of that is out the window because there’s no real way to know which players will forgo their spring season. 

The Red Stars saw significant changes to their lineup in 2020, with the departure of forward Sam Kerr giving them room to rework their attack with new forwards Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill. They also said goodbye to forward Savannah McCaskill and midfielder Yuki Nagasato in a trade package that gave the Red Stars full roster protection in the expansion draft. Additionally, backup goalkeeper Emily Boyd tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in her knee in October.

The addition of Mallory Pugh and Sarah Killion Woldmoe in a trade with Sky Blue FC earlier this week addressed needs the team had in the attack and the midfield.

“Adding Mal and Sarah were big pieces and we certainly feel like we’re closer,” Dames said. “But we’re not done yet. We still have a whole or two of top-level players we need to bring in.”

The NWSL plans to kick off 2021 play with another Challenge Cup in April, followed by a 24-game season with a six-team playoff. The Red Stars expect to be one of those six teams, but what happens before then is far from clear. 

“Even with the group we have now, we can win an NWSL championship,” midfielder Danielle Colaprico said. “I think the most important thing for us will be staying healthy.”

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