Less than a year ago, Portland Thorns FC selected defender Emily Sonnett from the University of Virginia with the first pick of the 2016 NWSL College Draft.
Sonnett went on to appear in 15 matches for the Thorns, anchoring a defense that conceded a league-fewest 19 goals and earning accolades from both Thorns head coach Mark Parsons and U.S. Women's National Team coach Jill Ellis.
In this year's draft, however, the Thorns currently possess no first round picks.
But the NWSL College Draft can often bring surprises.
In the 2014 edition, the Thorns selected a little-known defender from Georgetown University with the 25th overall pick in the third round who has since gone on to appear in over 60 matches and became a mainstay in last year's league-best defense: Emily Menges.
The talent, in other words, is out there.
Parsons himself recently explained that he is amply prepared for whatever might happen on January 12 at the 2017 NWSL College Draft in Los Angeles (12pm PT, Webstream at ThornsFC.com), whether that means utilizing all of their four picks – 14th, 20th, 27th and 40th overall – or moving up in the draft.
“We have to be prepared,” Parsons told ThornsFC.com in November. “If we're picking number one, who do we pick? If we're picking number seven [or] if we're picking number 29, we have to be ready for everything. The only way to be ready is to know this draft class inside out.”
That's been Parsons' priority since the NWSL offseason officially began in October and it's time-consuming work. It means pouring over game film, speaking daily with college coaches, and constantly revising a master list of players under consideration.
“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,” explained Parsons. “It's a non-stop detailed effort and you have to just prepare for anything.”
As part of that preparation, Parsons traveled to San Jose, Calif. in November to personally scout players during the NCAA Women's College Cup. While Parsons said before the trip that he didn't expect to be surprised, he admitted that watching a player in person could dramatically raise or lower their draft stock.
“It could happen where I've got someone a bit further down the pecking order and then we watch them live and they blow us away; that could happen,” he said. “But no one's going to come from being unknown because we've spent a lot of time on it already.”
The greatest challenge for Parsons, though, is finding the right player to fit into this Portland squad, which is already among the deepest and most talented in the NWSL. While that's admittedly a good problem to have, it's also one that makes finding and drafting the right player that much more difficult and time-consuming.
“The process for drafting a player to the Portland Thorns is so much deeper and longer and more detailed than [anything] I've done before because for a player to come to this club they've got to be a nine out of 10 or a 10 [out of 10] or they've got to have the potential to become a nine or a 10 out of 10,” he said.
That's a high bar to clear for any player, let alone for a young player coming straight out of college. Yet Parsons remains optimistic that he'll find a few talented players in this year's draft, even in the later rounds.
“There are a number of real high-quality [players],” Parsons said. “There's another 20 to 30 players that I could sit here and argue that they could make a team and be a good league player for multiple years. So it's deep; it's deep with players with potential.”
But even with all of his meticulous preparation and advance scouting, Parsons – now entering his fifth season as a head coach in this league – knows that on NWSL draft day, anything and everything can happen.
“I've only been [in the league for] three drafts but all three of them have been wild and crazy and unpredictable.”