NWSL College Draft, 1.8.20
(ISI Photos)

For Thorns, history shows NWSL first overall picks often make major impacts

Of the seven players ever selected first-overall in the NWSL College Draft, five were on the United States national team that won the World Cup last summer. Combined, those players have won one league MVP, one Golden Boot, and accounted for seven Best XI (first team or second) selections.

Granted, a lot of that is one player – with North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn having claimed the MVP, Golden Boot and four Best XI honors – but noting the active, international careers the last six top picks have is a way to describe the obvious: The first picks in the NWSL’s drafts have been gateways to really, really good players – part of the reason it cost Portland Thorns FC so much to move into this year’s top spot.

That cost, we’ve gone into elsewhere – it’s huge – but the Thorns have been here before. In 2016, with Emily Sonnett projected as the top-overall pick, part of Portland’s offseason makeover was trading into the top spot and selecting the former Virginia Cavalier. That year’s team would go on to post the league’s best defensive record while claiming the NWSL Shield and securing its first playoff game at home. If the Thorns have similar success with today’s trade, the gamble will have proved worth it.

Based on the history of the NWSL’s top picks, though, Portland has reason to take that risk, even if the history of number ones got off to a less certain start:

2013 (Chicago Red Stars): Zakiya Bywaters, F, UCLA
In hindsight, 2013’s College Draft looks like a weird one, and with newly-formed front offices having to take a shotgun approach to their scouting, it’s no wonder the miss-to-hit ratio was higher than it’s ever been, since. Still, with players like Kristie Mewis, Casey Short, Adrianna Franch and Christine Nairn taken in the first round, Chicago’s selection of Zakiya Bywaters will always stand out.

The Pac-12’s leader in goals during her final year at UCLA, Bywaters had all the physical tools to compete at a higher level. Health, however, compromised her, and after missing her final season (2015) in Chicago while recovering from hip surgery, she was waived by the Red Stars. Despite a standout career for the United States’ age-level teams, the Las Vegas native made only 25 appearances as a professional.

2014 (Washington Spirit): Crystal Dunn, F/M/D, North Carolina
If you need Crystal Dunn’s impact explained to you, you probably don’t care enough about this content to click the link, meaning I’m likely left preaching to the choir. Still, with an MVP, scoring title, multiple league titles, and a long national-team career under her belt, the 27-year-old has already established herself as one of the best players on the U.S. Soccer landscape. As a perennial NWSL MVP candidate, there may be no more impactful player on the league.

All of which makes it strange to, thinking back to 2014, remember the uncertainty around Dunn. While there were few doubts about her talent, there were major doubts about where that talent would be most impactful. Would it be at fullback, where she started her professional career? As a striker, where she claimed her highest individual honors in year two? Or as a midfielder, where she has since gone on to tip the scales in North Carolina’s favor since 2018?

Even now, there’s no clear answer. For the Courage, she works in tandem with Brazilian international Debinha to form a devastating dyad in attacking midfield. Yet for her national team, she’s become a World Cup winner as a starting left back. Maybe there’s nothing Crystal Dunn can’t do.

2015 (Houston Dash): Morgan Brian, M, Virginia
Brian continues to tantalize coaches with her skill and possession play, and like Dunn, she was part of the U.S.’ world champions this summer. But the road from her home state of Georgia and her college days in Charlottesville, Virginia, to her current place with Chicago hasn’t been a straight course. Along the way, she went from cornerstone player for the Houston Dash to a brief spell with French titans Olympique Lyonnais, with her Red Stars debut in between. Come spring, she’ll have started her second full year in Chicago.

By now, though, she’s established her place internationally. Only 26 years old, Brian already has 87 international appearances and has won World Cups in both 2019 and, as a 22-year-old, at Canada 2015. Having made her international debut while still at UVa, Brian continues to be regarded as one of the better on-ball midfielders in the U.S. player pool. Among the NWSL’s list of top-overall picks, her profile fits perfectly.

2016 (Portland Thorns): Emily Sonnett, D, Virginia
Like her former Cavaliers teammate, Sonnett made her full international debut while still in college, starting at center back against Brazil as a 21-year-old in October 2015. Three months later, having acquired the NWSL’s top-overall draft pick from the Orlando Pride, the Portland Thorns made Sonnett the first pick in the college draft – the start to a season that, for Sonnett, would include an NWSL Shield, an alternate’s place at the Summer Olympics, and a regular place among her senior national team.

Since, Sonnett has gone on to make 40 appearances for the United States, featuring at both center and right back as the U.S. built to, and ultimately succeeded in, this past summer’s world-title defense. Coincidentally – or ironically, depending on your view of the trade – Sonnett was involved in her second trade for an NWSL number one pick, this time going “back” to Orlando as part of today’s latest deal.

2017 (Boston Breakers): Rose Lavelle, M, Wisconsin
Like Dunn, Brian and Sonnett before, Lavelle was a no-doubt first-overall pick, her career at Wisconsin casting her as clearly the most-talented player in the country. And, much like Brian and Sonnett, Lavelle was already getting getting looks from her senior national team while still in school, though she wouldn’t get her first cap until she’d been selected by Boston.

To date, Lavelle’s professional career has been plagued by injury, with various setbacks limiting the Cincinnati native to 27 appearances over three seasons, and two locations. Still, though 2019 only saw her play six times for the Washington Spirit, she remains one the NWSL’s brightest talents, with the Bronze Ball she earned at France 2019 speaking to the impact she’s already made at the international level.

2018 (Washington Spirit): Andi Sullivan, M, Stanford
Like Lavelle, Sullivan is a key, young part of a Spirit team ready to do major damage in the NWSL for years to come. Unlike Lavelle, though, Sullivan barely missed out on a trip to France this summer, a decision she’s already shown could prove a curiosity, as future fans look back on the roster.

After a solid debut season as a rookie in 2018, Sullivan played every minute for the Spirit last season, assuming a key distributing role in deep and central midfield as Washington improved by 23 points season-over-season. Though the talent infusion her team enjoyed last winter explained much of those gains, Sullivan’s improvement was almost a major part. Over two years removed from a major injury she suffered during her junior year at Stanford, Sullivan showed why she was still the clear-cut top pick when her collegiate career was over.

2019 (Chicago Red Stars): Tierna Davidson, D, Stanford
Just as Portland has traded up for the top pick in this year’s draft, so too did Chicago move to the top of the list last year. The cost, then? United States national-team standout Christen Press, though the Red Stars also got an additional pick from the Utah Royals when, in the middle of the 2018 season, the former Chicago captain returned from Sweden.

Like a few top picks before her, Davidson had already made her senior national team debut before turning professional, featuring at both left and center back as Jill Ellis refined her squad for the 2019 World Cup. That Davidson thrived during her first U.S. turns left few surprised when she was handed a ticket to France, and fewer surprised still when, earlier in the year, Chicago took her first overall.

World Cup responsibilities meant Davidson’s rookie year was atypical, and over the course of the Red Stars’ 24 regular-season games, she was only able to appear in 13. But by season’s end, Davidson was starting regularly to the left of fellow-U.S.-international Julie Ertz in Rory Dames’ defense, and although she wasn’t able to play in her team’s championship-game loss, Davidson went the full 90 in Chicago’s semifinal breakthrough a week earlier against the Thorns.

2020 (Portland Thorns): ?
Speculation will build over the next eight days, with the Thorns’ move into 2020’s top spot teasing imaginations into thoughts of who, among graduates and younger players on the college landscape, might jump at the chance to play at Providence Park. If history is any indication, though, that player is bound to make a major impact. It’s a rare exception that the NWSL’s top pick doesn’t, eventually, make a pronounced professional mark.

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