We’ve been holding our breath for quite a while in NWSL land. It took absolutely ages for Sacramento to formally rule themselves out of expansion contention, and the waiting game clearly delayed moves that teams around the league have been waiting to make. With the draft coming up soon and with not a ton of time left for top players to decide to register or not, the Portland Thorns are pushing their chips on the table and making it known that they are in the game for a trade for the #1 pick in the NWSL draft.
This coming NWSL draft has been dominated by talk of the players who aren’t registering. Deyna Castellanos, probably the most prominent international star already of the college players, jumped early to sign for Athletico Madrid in Spain. Jessie Fleming, well established as a starter on the Canadian WNT, has given zero indication that she’s interested in playing in the NWSL. Catarino Macario is a two-time MAC Hermann trophy winner as a junior and is widely considered to be the best prospect around, but with her USWNT eligibility not set to kick in until her 23rd birthday, that likely means no USWNT allocation (and thus salary) until next year.
Portland went into this off-season promising big signings. The flipside of big signings is, sometimes, big departures. The Thorns are making a bet that by moving up to the first pick in the draft they can make a big enough splash to draw in at least one name from the pool who wouldn’t have otherwise considered it, and they’re putting two names out there to make a trade for the top pick work: Emily Sonnett and Midge Purce.
Sonnett’s departure was, quietly, fairly penciled in at season’s end when everyone was still working on the assumption that the league was headed for expansion. It’s possible the Thorns could have negotiated rules that allowed them to protect three of their USWNT players, but all four was never going to happen, and as good as Sonnett is she plays a position the Thorns are relatively well set up to cope with a hit to. Can’t lose AD Franch: Britt Eckerstrom is a capable backup but not someone who shifts games on her own and Bella Geist has no NWSL experience under her belt yet. Lindsey Horan, despite her struggles in the World Cup season, is a 25 year old league MVP that the club has decided to base the foundation of their club on, and the club can’t very well be seen to be abandoning her or Heath for nothing. Almost seems absurd to spell it out, but trades for those three simply aren’t on the table at this point in time, so if one USWNT player must go, it’s Sonnett.
The fact that the promised expansion hasn’t come (and the decision came so late) puts the Thorns on the spot: either they can run it back with the knowledge that they’re just going to be kicking the can down the line for a potentially even more disruptive expansion draft in 2021, or they can start to deal their hand and see who the takers are.
Midge Purce is the more difficult one here. Even as Purce was having a breakout season, it became clear down the stretch that the club still didn’t trust her in clutch situations. Purce is one of the fastest players on the team and proved her value on the break in the more defensive scheme that carried the Thorns through the World Cup season, but after the rest of the players returned she saw her minutes declining, culminating with her not getting the start in the semifinal against Chicago. Purce has a high ceiling as a player, but from the club perspective, they’ve added a ton of value to her this year and they don’t know how much higher it can go: she’s getting regular call ups to the national team, a ton of buzz from her early season work. Without being certain if she’s going to be a fit with the team long term, why not cash out while the value is a high as you expect it to be? Plus, if she does stick with the national team and ends up allocated for next year, that’s another headache for expansion prospects, whenever that finally happens.
Orlando being the team bad enough to be in possession of the natural #1 pick is a blessing here. They need just about everything to put themselves into position to be a good team again and have signed themselves into a cap space corner: they need trades to make acquisitions. They need talent now, and can live with some variance in how it may or may not pan out down the line.
The players on the table make sense for the Thorns to give up in a potential trade, but this still looks like a big swing for something that isn’t certain. Fans will recall the last deal with Orlando included a move up to the top of the allocation order in a failed attempt to convince Mallory Pugh to return to the league, and while the rest of that trade worked out alright, odds are it won’t be such a lopsided deal this time. PTFC did warn us that this would be an offseason of change, but hopefully the loud noise about the Thorns getting into the #1 pick game will convince some of the top talents to make up their minds and not leave the Thorns waiting at the altar.