Future NWSL stars face tough decision: go pro or return for spring NCAA season

Players drafted have until Jan. 22 to decide whether they will report to their NWSL team before or after their spring season

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Jaelin Howell

Klara Buehl of Germany challenges Jaelin Howell of USA during the international friendly match between U19 Women’s Germany and U19 Women’s USA at OBI Arena on July 2, 2017 in Rheine, Germany.

Joachim Sielski/Bongarts/Getty Images

As preparations continue for an unprecedented NWSL Draft on Jan. 13, college coaches are preparing their players for a difficult decision: return to play a spring season or go pro.

The biggest concern for some coaches of the NCAA’s best women’s soccer programs is the uncertainty about draft rules. After the league announced this week that it has eliminated the registration requirement and expanded the eligible athlete pool, college coaches aren’t clear on what that means for their seniors.

“The NWSL had a Zoom call for seniors and coaches who had questions, and I’ve heard from multiple people, including our players, that it was very confusing,” UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said.

Players drafted have until Jan. 22 to decide whether they will report to their NWSL team before or after their spring season, but there’s no guarantee a spring season will be completed.

There’s also no guarantee an NWSL season will proceed without issue. The preseason is expected to begin in three weeks, the Challenge Cup in mid-April and the regular season in mid-May.

The question of whether it’s the right time for players to begin their professional career is one college coaches prepare their players for every year. The consensus is that it’s unique to each athlete.

“We only had three players who were kind of in the situation this year wondering how it was going to shake out going forward,” Florida State women’s soccer coach Mark Krikorian said. “Oddly enough, none of the three are entering the NWSL Draft.”

Krikorian didn’t specify which three players he was referring to, but one of his players who could enter the draft early is junior midfielder Jaelin Howell.

Howell made her senior team debut against the Netherlands on Nov. 27 when she replaced Lindsay Horan on the U.S. women’s national roster for the trip after Horan tested positive for the coronavirus. She was among the 27 players coach Vlatko Andonovski named to his January training-camp roster.

Camp starts Saturday in Orlando, Florida, and concludes with two games against Colombia, on Jan. 18 and 22.

Two other collegiate athletes on Andonovski’s roster are Stanford midfielder Catarina Macario and North Carolina defender/midfielder Emily Fox.

Andonovski made it clear he isn’t making any suggestions about whether going pro or finishing their collegiate eligibility will affect their USWNT future. The only factors he is considering are health, fitness, consistent play, performance and availability.

Cromwell said the lack of parity in terms of financial gain for men and women in professional sports affects women leaving college early. Women who exhaust their college eligibility not only help their development, but they earn a degree, as well.

The Bruins coach has experience with players beginning their pro career early for a shot at making the USWNT roster. She said that’s one scenario in which leaving college early makes sense.

Macario announced Friday on Twitter that she would not return to Stanford for the spring season so she can begin her professional career.

It’s uncertain whether Macario will play in the NWSL or pursue an opportunity overseas. But she figures to be the No. 1 selection in the draft. Racing Louisville FC has the first pick, but that doesn’t guarantee Macario will end up there.

“The waiver they got from the NCAA, that throws a different tweak to the whole process,” Andonovski said. “I’m excited for the players because it seems like it gives the players a little more opportunity. On the other side, I feel bad for the NWSL coaches because it throws a little more uncertainty and a little more work.”

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