NWSL College Draft podium, 1.15.20
(ISI Photos)

Thorns FC's Parsons with experience at making No. 1 overall pick

BALTIMORE, Md. – Mark Parsons has been in this situation before. Twice.

In 2014, ahead of his first College Draft as an NWSL head coach, Parsons’ then team, the Washington Spirit, held the first overall pick. There was no doubt who they should take. The University of North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn would be a league Most Valuable Player within two years, a Golden Boot winner in the same window, and a world champion come the summer of 2019.

Two years after selecting Dunn, Parsons was back in the same position, albeit with a new team. His new employers, Portland Thorns FC, had a similarly easy choice. There was no doubt who they should take. In 2016, the University of Virginia’s Emily Sonnett would go on to be a linchpin in the league’s best defense, an NWSL champion the next year, and a world champion come the summer of 2019.

This year, the first-pick waters are a little more murky; at least, from the outside, they are. When the Thorns gave up Sonnett last week in a trade with the Orlando Pride, they delivered a top pick to Parsons for the third time in his six-and-a-half-year head coaching career. But with the most-speculated prospects for that pick having yet to, as of 24-hours before, declare for the draft – players like Stanford’s Catarino Macario and Sophie Smith; as well as UCLA’s Jessie Fleming and Ashley Sanchez – 2020’s projection was more clouded than 2013’s, or 2016’s.

A day before the draft, it was still unclear who us, the plebs, would go number one.

“Clearly things are a lot easier when someone is not in front of you to pick the player you want,” Parsons explains, regarding life with the top pick. “You can relax a little bit.”

Still, despite less certainty around this year’s pick, Parsons sees parallels – perhaps because he’s one of the few people who knows Portland’s plans. Whereas most NWSL fans follow the draft from a place of ignorance, the Thorns’ head coach can already put this process in light of the past, looking at his teams’ previous picks in light of what’s likely to happen on Thursday.

“I can compare [this draft] to picking Crystal [Dunn] and picking [Emily] Sonnett,” he admits. “Those are two unbelievable athletes and professionals, and incredible people.

“What this opportunity right now presents us [with] is picking someone who has outstanding quality to help us right now. That there is no ceiling to what this player can do in the future is even more exciting, or scary, depending on which way you look at it. I, for one, am someone who is looking forward to not playing against this player in preseason or other tournaments, because we have [before]. She scared the life out of me having to deal with her on the other side. It’s going to be exciting.”

Parsons is alluded to the Thorns’ annual preseason tournament, where the United States’ women’s national team regular sends a U-23 squad to compete against three professional teams. The best players from those teams inevitably end up in the NWSL, with goalkeeper Bella Bixby, forward Simone Charley and midfielder Gabby Seiler among the current Thorns who’ve competed against Portland in that tournament.

Based on first picks’ past, Parsons has reason to be optimistic, even if Thursday’s number one isn’t set in stone. Five of the last six top picks were part of the United States team that won last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. All six picks since 2014 are performing at levels that make them young, valuable players in a league were youth, and eventually national-team allocated talent, is almost exclusively acquired through the college draft. Perhaps 2020’s first pick will change that trend, but without a doubt, the NWSL’s drafts have developed a trend.

That Parsons can now allude to Portland’s pick with some specifics, albeit short of an actual name, hints at the end of a road. Collegiate players had until Wednesday to declare their eligibility for the NWSL draft. Come night, teams could start taking the final steps in their draft preparation, using the final list of eligible players to bring a some more certainty to their still anonymous draft slots.

Portland has five such spots on Thursday. For now. If history is any indication, the team’s two seconds, one third, and one fourth round pick could be used, traded, or otherwise shuffled around.