The fifth NWSL College that happened this Thursday, January 12th, and it was an exciting day. In an article for the ThornsFC.com, Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons told Tim Froh that he’s “only been [in the league for] three drafts but all three of them have been wild and crazy and unpredictable.” Was the 2017 NWSL Draft “crazy and unpredictable”?
In the end, I would say no. Despite the repeated timeouts, and the constant refrain of “Boston Breakers, you’re on the clock,” the draft didn’t hold any major surprises. Although some players no one expected to be picked in the first round were scooped up (Ifeoma Onumonu), and other players people had labeled as first round picks were left until the fourth round (Nickolette Driesse), the day otherwise proceeded as normal.
Portland Thorns didn’t have a particularly amazing draft, though they didn’t exactly fail expectations either. Chris Henderson gave them a B-, which I think was harsh. The team held late picks, so they weren’t going to make any revolutionary picks. Some notable things to mention before I go into specific analysis of the players though, are the metrics of this draft. First of all, the overall draft strategy this year was incredibly different from other years. This is partially due to the fact that Mark Parsons has now settled into his role of his players, and he’s looking for precise pieces to make his team as a whole better. Going into the draft, Parsons explained that he and his team “[knew] this draft class inside out,” since that was the only way to prepare for his later picks. “Forty players could be drafted, so we need a database of 50 players minimum, knowing them inside-out on the soccer field and then getting the best grip [on] their personality, their character off the field,” Parsons explained to Froh. He and his team had prepared for this “non-stop detailed effort” since the NWSL offseason officially began in October, and as they settled down at their table in the draft, they looked ready to go.
Secondly, Parsons noted that going into this draft, they had “no specific needs” since almost all the players were returning. Parsons didn’t elaborate further on this, but I did note in my pre-Draft prediction that the one need that Portland did have was to try and fill the gap of the three international players, Nadia Nadim, Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Amandine Henry, who will leave to play in the European Championship between mid-July and early August. Despite this, Parsons told media that the club’s needs “aren’t right now,” but rather that he was investing in the club on a longterm basis in this draft. Savannah Jordan, especially, was an example of a “medium and long term investment" from the club according to Parsons, but one he was pleased with.
Lastly, while historically the Thorns have leaned towards drafting defenders, this year, the Thorns drafted more forwards than ever before. This was also the first draft that Portland had more than three picks, and the buzzword that Parsons repeated over and over again in his interviews about these draft picks was “versatility.” Talking to the Thorns staff, Parsons noted that although the players he drafted played "similar positions,” he considered them “very versatile." They had “great mobility and athletic ability" that Parsons believed could really make them an important member of the Thorns, and he saw real potential in them.
The best player that Portland drafted in this draft was definitely Rachel Hill. Rachel Hill was Portland’s first draft pick of the evening — many people were surprised UConn’s rising star and the semi-finalist for the MAC Herman Trophy was still available this late, but the Thorns scooped her up. Aly Wagner noted that Hill had “good sense around the box,” and she could really fit Parsons’ desire to push Raso and Webber, and bring out the best in their game with her speed and versatility. Chris Henderson praises her as being “unbelievably consistent” and the Equalizer praises her “superb work rate,” as well as her “good speed, athleticism and anticipation.” Overall, her ability to create and score goals make her a great pick, though I do wonder whether she will remain a forward at the professional level, or whether she will fall back slightly, and play in a more attacking midfielder role.
Instead of awaiting their third round draft pick, the Thorns then proceeded to trade their 20th and 27th draft picks to North Carolina in order to snag Savannah Jordan. The fact that Savannah Jordan didn’t go in the first round of the draft meant that many journalists assumed it was a certainty that she would play in Europe in 2017, but this pick threw a wrench in it. Why did Portland trade up two picks for a player who would not play off? Aly Wagner speculated that perhaps “with the crowds in Portland” the draw of Europe wasn’t so strong for Jordan anymore, or that perhaps Portland knew something we didn’t. But then Jamie Goldberg reported that “Mark Parsons said Savannah Jordan will begin [the year] in Europe. Thorns don't yet know when she'll join Portland,” which indicated they knew nothing. Parsons explained that “the club had the luxury of being able to draft Jordan,” since “our needs aren’t right now.” Jordan’s drafting might be a good long term investment — the Thorns do officially have her rights now, and if she chose to come to Portland even as early as July, she could make a great addition to the team as a “strong, powerful and quick” forward.
Next, Portland traded the Red Stars for their first pick in the 3rd round of the draft for their 2018 2nd and 3rd Round Picks, and then drafted Tyler Lussi. Tyler Lussi is one of those forwards who could really make the transition to OB — her strength is really her ability to develop tactically, and she looks to be a real asset to the team. Although Henderson didn’t love her, I think she’s an investment that will most definitely pay off. She’s a player who can really allow for depth on the bench, and she has what Wagner called “a good nose around the box.” Parsons described her as “a ball of energy and pace and speed,” and I think those will combine well to make her a dangerous winger.
Portland ended the draft with their final pick: Caroline Flynn. Henderson called her “good not great,” and that echoed with one of Parsons’ statements. When talking about his draftees, Parsons explained that these players were "good [players] that have the potential to be great" — they are not there yet, but with the right training and mentorship, they can be there. Flynn will definitely be surrounded by great midfielders at Portland, and although Wagner worried whether she was “dynamic enough,” I think that last-round draft picks have a way of surprising everyone with their versatility and their ability to rise to the challenge. I wouldn’t be a good Portland fan if I didn’t point out that Emily Menges was considered a risk, but she paid off, and I believe Flynn can do the same.
In the end, I think this draft will pay off. In the long run, Parsons made some great investments in this draft, and I am interested to see how these will play out in the long term. The New York Times ran an article about how, in the last two years, the draft has become less about the here and now, and more about longevity, as GMs and coaches alike begin to believe in the health of the league. And I think that’s just what Parsons has done in this draft; right now, it might look like a solid B draft, but I think that even by next season, these picks will be paying dividend.