PHILADELPHIA — Ten minutes into Thursday’s National Women’s Soccer League Draft, there was an audible gasp from the crowd of several hundred fans inside the ballroom at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. United States forward Lynn Williams had been traded from the Kansas City Current to NJ/NY Gotham FC in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman announced.
Welcome to the draft, the NWSL’s annual curtain-raising event that serves as the catalyst to chaos that so often defines the league.
“Today was the culmination of thousands of conversations and every decision we made was not taken in a vacuum,” Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch West said about the trade. “It’s part of a holistic look at how we, from yesterday to now, become a significantly better team. We feel really, really good about the fact that we achieved that.”
Gotham’s acquisition of Williams was one of an NWSL record 12 deals made on the day, which began with Angel City FC — who acquired the No. 1 pick from Gotham last week — selecting 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson.
The draft is often defined as much by major trades made within it as it is the college players selected. Take 2018, for example, when a major draft-day deal saw Christen Press, Sam Kerr and Carli Lloyd all change clubs.
Among Thursday’s big trades was one that saw forward Diana Ordonez sent from the North Carolina Courage to the Houston Dash. Ordonez scored 11 goals in a stellar rookie season for the Courage in 2022, but this offseason the Mexico international forward expressed a desire to be closer to her family, Courage coach Sean Nahas said.
Houston pursued Ordonez for months, but the trade was only finalized on Thursday night as the draft got going. North Carolina’s haul was significant: the No. 8 pick on Thursday, $100,000 in allocation money, an international spot for 2023 and Houston’s natural first-round pick in 2024.
At a glance, it looks like Houston gave up a lot of one player. Teams can sometimes make impulsive deals on draft day in attempts to rebuild their rosters or acquiesce to players looking to get out of their current situations. “It’s negotiating, a bit of back and forth,” Dash general manager Alex Singer said. “I will say that the emotions of this day sometimes help get things done.”
Trades are what make draft day such a spectacle. Once a year, for a few hours, the negotiation process for trades takes place out in the open for fans and media alike to observe, instead of on phones or conference calls behind closed doors. You can observe the intense conversations, vigorous headshakes and, of course, timeouts. Oh, and all of it takes place under a haze created by a fog machine, with spotlights shining on each team on the clock to make a pick.
Washington Spirit coach Mark Parsons was the most active person on the draft floor Thursday night, as he jumped from table to table trying to position his team higher up the board. Eventually, the Spirit sent United States defender Emily Sonnett to OL Reign for a first-round pick in the 2024 draft.
Sonnett, who was the No. 1 pick to Portland Thorns FC in 2016, was on the trading block in the buildup to the draft, but it was not until Thursday night that the Reign became engaged in those conversations, said head coach Laura Harvey.
Harvey was the coach of the Reign in 2013, the league’s inaugural season. That year, the draft was held in a small meeting room in Indianapolis with a partition wall separating teams from media, and no fans were allowed: the picks were announced to the world (and even those in the other room) via Twitter. It was a scene unrecognizable to the one on Thursday in Philadelphia, where a red carpet welcomed prospective draft picks and music pumped through the ballroom to create the feel of a nightclub.
“It’s crazy,” Harvey said. “The evolution of the game is crazy and exciting. I think it speaks volumes to where women’s sport, women’s soccer is going, both in this country and around the world.”
Hours before the draft, Berman used her semi-annual state-of-the-league address to stress the symbolism of the day and its ability to offer fresh starts. The NWSL just went through a traumatic year of reckoning from the historical, systemic abuse of its players by people in power and on Monday, the league announced unprecedented fines for teams and lifetime bans for four coaches. The message from the league and the NWSLPA was that it was time to move forward, to look ahead. Berman said the league worked hard to get that done before the draft.
“The draft to me is a sign of hope, it’s a sign of the future.”