By Alex Holmes
The 2021 NWSL Draft welcomed a star-studded group of collegiate standouts, with defender Emily Fox from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the No. 1 overall pick. A draft class loaded with youth national team experience will bode well for the league for seasons to come. Which teams had the best selections? Who should soccer fans keep an eye on come May? Here are some key takeaways from this year’s draft:
Louisville off to the races with high draft picks
NWSL expansion team Racing Louisville FC hit the jackpot, claiming two of the top five draft picks with Fox and midfielder Emina Ekic (University of Louisville), followed by the eleventh overall pick in midfielder Taylor Otto (UNC Chapel Hill). Fox, who has experience playing with the senior national team, will be a nice addition to the club’s defense, where she will join former Tar Heel teammate Julia Ashley on the backline.
Image Credit: @RacingLouFC
Ekic, the hometown girl from the University of Louisville, is the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year after scoring or assisting on 10 of the Cardinals’ 11 goals last fall. Otto, a three-time All-ACC selection, will bolster Racing Louisville FC’s midfield and make up for the loss of the highly esteemed Jennifer Cudjoe, who the club traded to Sky Blue FC. Racing Louisville FC will have high expectations in its inaugural season, as this coveted draft class joins high-profile players like Christen Press, Tobin Heath, and Australian stars Alanna Kennedy and Caitlin Foord.
Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC also benefited from big first round picks, as the Spirit welcomed forward Trinity Rodman (Washington State) and Sky Blue drafted midfielder Brianna Pinto (UNC Chapel Hill). Rodman, who became the second teenager after Sophia Smith to be selected in the NWSL Draft, will be one of the most exciting young players this season. She is also the daughter of NBA champion, Dennis Rodman. Although she did not play in an NCAA game due to COVID-19, her experience with the youth national team—which includes two goals in last year’s U-20 CONCACAF Championship—along with her speed and physicality, should translate well into the league.
Sky Blue also received Jennifer Cudjoe back after losing her to Louisville in the expansion draft last November. The back-and-forth efforts of both clubs to acquire Cudjoe highlight her value as a playmaker and teammate. Pinto, a two-time First Team All-ACC selection, will pair well with Cudjoe in the midfield. She will also have the opportunity to make an immediate impact as McCall Zerboni comes back from injury, and may have plenty of responsibility in the center pitch should Carli Lloyd play with the USWNT in this year’s Olympics.
Of all the much-anticipated picks for the 2021 season, there is one player outside the top five that NWSL fans should keep an eye on: Madison Haley. The Stanford forward brings pace, strength and a winning mentality to Chicago. Haley has had a stellar college career, with three College Cup appearances and two national championships with the Cardinal. The former All-American was also a mainstay for the United States U-20 side. Haley and the newly acquired Mallory Pugh will be an offensive force to reckon with for the Red Stars this season.
The one that got away…
The biggest name we didn’t see in this year’s draft was Catarina Macario. Considered the best collegiate soccer player of this class, Macario announced she is taking her talents to European powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais. Her college career includes two NCAA championships along with two MAC Hermann Trophy awards, an accolade recognizing the top NCAA soccer player. Macario, who was born in Brazil, was also recently granted permission from FIFA to represent U.S. Soccer on the international level.
New year, new draft rules
Aside from the NWSL Draft taking place virtually, there were a few other changes to this year’s event. Due to COVID-19 forcing college teams to move their seasons to the spring, the league waived the requirement for “seniors”—defined as players who have exhausted three years of playing eligibility—to register for the draft. This change ensured a larger player pool to choose from as all college seniors were deemed eligible. Selected players entering their senior season this spring may opt to play with their college team and join their professional team at the conclusion of their NCAA season. NWSL teams will hold the rights of their draft selections until the start of the 2022 season. Players not identified as seniors still had to register themselves for the draft.
The 2021 NWSL season begins this spring with the second edition of the Challenge Cup kicking off in April. Regular season play begins in mid-May, the NWSL said in a press release. For more information on the NWSL, you can access its website here.
This year’s draft class is full of firepower and potential USWNT call-ups—these young ladies will be in the hunt to compete in future World Cups and Olympics, which is something all soccer fans should be excited to watch.