NWSL draft ramps up excitement ahead of new season

By Michael Lewis

CHICAGO -- Every team has different priorities in National Women's Soccer League college draft.

For Sky Blue FC, it meant overhauling and improving a roster on a squad that won but once in 24 games in 2018.

For the North Carolina Courage -- the ICC Women’s defending tournament champions -- it meant refining and adding depth to a potent side that lost once en route to the league championship and the International Champions Cup women's tournament last year.

Courage head coach Paul Riley called it "a good draft." Riley felt his three choices will be thrown into the fire early on in the season because he figured he could lose as many as nine players to the Women's World Cup in France in June and July.

"It's up to them to be ready," he said. "We've got a 26-man roster now, 22 plus the four other players, which is great for the players. Now they have a tremendous opportunity. Obviously, we're losing a lot of players. Mid-May we'll be down 9-10 players. It's going to be tricky to say the least.

Some teams selected players for the future. The Courage picked their four selections for the 2019 NWSL season at McCormick Place, Riley said. That included University of South California forward Leah Pruitt, Pepperdine University defender Hailey Harbison, Colorado College midfielder Lauren Milliet, and Florida State midfielder Kaycie Tillman.

"I think you pick who can get experience this year," he added.

"They're going to have to play. Three of the four are going to have to play at some point this season. That's a good thing for those guys. The question is which one will come through. Last year our fourth-round draft pick actually did better than our first-round draft pick.

Sometimes they settle in better, they're more comfortable, they do a better job. They're fitter, they're stronger, they're in tune with what we're doing. I'm not sure how it will work out this year."

Sky Blue FC certainly had the busiest day Thursday, selecting eight players and trading the third overall pick to the Washington Spirit for three players and the 29th overall choice to be named later. Their identities were not available immediately after the draft.

General manager Tony Novo said he was happy with the draft, but the team might have some issues signing its two top choices -- UCLA forward-defender Hailie Mace at No. 2 overall and University of North Carolina defender Julia Ashley, a Verona, N.J. native, at No. 6.

Given Sky Blue FC's problems on and off the field, the team wasn't necessarily an enticing possibility.

"I'm excited for this opportunity," Ashley said. "I'm really happy that Denise [Reddy, head coach] believes in me. I'm from New Jersey, but I'm not positive of what I want to do in regards to if I'm going to stay or go abroad. I have to explore those options.

"I've been talking to my agent about possibly France, Sweden or Germany," Ashley told reporters. "I'm not sure yet, but it's definitely an option."

Novo was more optimistic. “I'm very confident that we'll be able to sign her,” he said.

On draft day, it is difficult to determine winners because the proof in the proverbial pudding will come on the pitch. However, one winner was Stanford University, which had three players chosen among the top seven -- defender Tierna Davidson as the overall top pick by the Chicago Red Stars. Then the Washington Spirit grabbed midfielder Jordan DiBlasi as the third selection and defender Tegan McGrady at No. 8.

"They're two fantastic footballers. Are you kidding?" said an enthusiastic Spirit head coach Richie Burke said.

"DiBalsi, she's got a can-opener on both feet. She's a tricky, creative, stylish, skillful tactician that sometimes get lost in the mix here because it's an athletic game, it's a powerful game. This country, the United States of America, has the best athletes on the planet. DiBlasi is an out and out footballer. She's got a great football brain, a fantastic brain. That was a no brainer for me. She's right up my alley and can play football.

"McCrady is a senior international in college. She's a flyer up and down the line. You get a chance to get a player like that, you're crazy not to."

Davidson decided to forgo her senior year at Stanford University for a chance at the pros and was the most coveted of all picks.

Unlike many of the other first-round selections who thanked their college teams, coaches, teammates and family after they were chosen, Davidson was unable to attend the proceedings. She had a pretty decent excuse because the center back was in Portugal with the USWNT training for the team's upcoming friendlies against Women's World Cup host France on January 19 and Spain three days later.

"I'm pretty bummed not by being here," she said in video.

Davidson is trying to secure a place on the USWNT for the Women's World Cup.

On draft day, hope always springs eternal. Every coach is extremely satisfied with his or her selections and every draft choice in attendance thanking their coaches, team, teammates, friend, family and sometimes a higher deity in help her to be in a position to be taken.

Whether their dreams come true remains to be seen.

Perhaps they will be in their respective teams' starting XI come opening weekend on April 13-14.

Or better yet, be a member or a regular of the NWSL championship team when all is said and done on October 26.

Only time will tell.