PORTLAND, Ore. — The NWSL Draft is typically the highpoint of each league offseason, yet how much will tomorrow’s draft impact the 2022 Thorns? That question, along with its entailed expectations, is at the core of how Portland soccer fans will evaluate Saturday’s selection process.
For fans focused on the next season, that will be the most important question surrounding what’s being called the 2022 draft, even if it’s happening in 2021. “How ready are these players to make the jump?” For others, it’s better to look at the long game, where there are many ways to evaluate how much the Thorns are helped.
Take the team’s most recent trade. Sending Christen Westphal and the rights to Amirah Ali to San Diego Wave deprives Portland of two valuable talents, but on the surface, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with this draft. Then you remember that Ali was a third-round pick in January, Westphal’s rights were acquired on draft day 2020, and you also remember the purpose of the deal. Thorns FC’s trade was about maintaining their current, title-contending core. To the extent the 2020 and 2021 drafts helped, that help came both on and away from the field.
That’s one reality important to remember as tomorrow’s draft unfolds. Another? That anything can happen. Again, take two years ago. In the 24 hours before the 2020 draft, the Thorns completed a move that had been rumored for days before. A U.S. international, Emily Sonnett, was traded for the first pick in that January’s draft. When the Thorns executed a deal on draft day that landed them the second-overall pick, too, Portland became the story of the draft. They arrived in Baltimore as relative onlookers but left with two international-caliber talents, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver on their roster.
Back to the present. Thanks to last week’s trade with Angel City FC, the Thorns have Saturday’s 13th-overall selection – the first of the day’s second round. That pick gets added to the 20th- and 48th-overall picks they held before the league’s latest slew of deals. Combined, those picks form a package primed to move into the first round, though if last year’s draft is any indication, they may not need to. In 2020, the Thorns targeted Texas Christian midfielder Yazmeen Ryan during their scouting process, knew she was unlikely to go high in the draft and waited for her to fall. When she slid to sixth overall, Portland finally pounced.
Part of that “pouncing” may be the story Portland wants to tell. Whether teams have in-house content staffs or not, there’s always a want to promote the players you picked. After all, you only pick players you want. But the Thorns, with an already stacked roster, had the luxury of waiting on a player who planned to play another semester at school. That’s what Ryan did. Portland also had the option of waiting an entire year for a second-round pick who wanted to stay in college for a fall season. Penn State’s Sam Coffey just ended hers. Maybe the Thorns were playing the hype game with their picks, but maybe, because of a stacked roster, they could think of 2022 when selecting in 2021.
That’s part of the context around our core question: How much will Saturday’s draft impact the 2022 Thorns? In truth, the draft may not need to help next year’s Thorns at all. With the bulk of a trophy-winning team coming back, and with players like Ryan and Coffey likely to be with the team from season’s start, the squad is already packed. Just as the 2021 draft had a 2022 view, so too might the 2022 have more than a one-season outlook.
Most watching on Saturday morning will know this, but there’s also something about the spectacle of draft days that make us want immediate gratification. And no matter who Portland takes, what players they trade for, or if other changes happen to the roster, part of us will see those moves through the lens of the 2022 Thorns. As Portland’s most recent drafts show, though, they will be several ways to evaluate Saturday’s results.