NWSL College Draft moves part of larger 2020 vision Thorns FC, Parsons

Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver, Mark Parsons, Gavin Wilkinson, 1.16.20

BALTIMORE, Md. – Portland Thorns FC didn’t stop at one. Eight days after trading for the first-overall pick in the 2020 NWSL College Draft, the Thorns traded into the second spot, too, marking the first time in league history a single team made the first two selections in a college draft. The players selected could remake Portland’s attack for years to come.

As speculated in the days before the draft, Stanford forward Sophie Smith, an underclassman who declared for the draft the day before selections began, was taken with the first pick overall. Then, with a selection acquired moments before the draft officially started, Portland added Washington State forward Morgan Weaver, giving the team new options both wide and through the middle of the its attack.

“It’s going to take a while to be able to sink in that we’ve been able to pull off what we have,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said in the wake of the draft. “To be successful in this league, it’s one of the hardest leagues in the world to be able to be successful – for a player, for a coach, for a GM, for a front-office. It’s really hard.

“You have to be so dynamic in how you have your vision, in what that is, and pursue it. Be brave enough to go for it. I think we’re showing that right now, in what we’re doing. It doesn’t come at a cheap price.”

The Thorns would add Meaghan Nally, a defender from Georgetown University, with their day’s final pick, the seventh of the third round, but when fans look back on the 2020 College Draft, they’ll remember the aggression with which the Thorns sought their two-most desired targets.

That aggression began last week, when the team traded Emily Sonnett, Caitlin Foord and two first round picks to the Orlando Pride for the pick that would become Smith. Then, in the minutes before Thursday’s draft began, general manager Gavin Wilkinson and Parsons consummated a deal with the Chicago Red Stars, who had just traded up from the day’s fourth and fifth picks to claim the second and third from Sky Blue FC. The cost to get the highest of those selections? Two second round picks and allocation money, with the team’s new pick turning into Weaver.

“Who deserves a lot credit is the technical staff, with Gavin and [team owner] Merritt [Paulson] incredibly clear on what the Portland Thorns 3.0, 2020 roster can look like, what the identity of that play, that person can look like, and what this team collectively, what we can strive to be ...,” Parson explained.

“We’re probably half-way through the important work that we’ve got to do, and some of the other conversations, some of the other things that we want to grow and improve on the roster, they weren’t going to be solved today, in the draft. They’re going to be solved in other ways.”

Smith, going first overall, was the day’s big prize. Having earned her first call-up to the U.S. women’s national team camp as a 16-year-old, the Colorado native has been a long-sought prospect among NWSL coaches, only becoming eligible to join the league on Wednesday, when she made herself available for this year’s draft. In doing so, Smith rewarded the gamble Portland made last week, when four assets went to Orlando with the hopes a talent like her would be available.

“I’m feeling awesome,” Smith said in the wake of not only being drafted but having gone through a post-draft gauntlet of speeches and media sessions. “It’s pretty surreal, and it feels like it hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m beyond excited to go to Portland and play in that environment.”

That excitement is shared by Smith’s new coach.

“The opportunity to bring Sophie to Portland: She spent multiple spring seasons or summers with the U-23s, U-20s destroying us [in preseason tournaments],” Parsons remembered. “Bringing her to Portland to be on our side, she’s got qualities and physical abilities to be a world-class player. And the difference-maker is always mentality, and that’s where she thrives. Incredible mentality to want to learn, want to grow.”

Smith was not the day’s only big addition to Portland’s attack, though, with the Thorns orchestrating one of Thursday’s biggest surprised by acquiring the second overall pick. Four hours later, Parsons was still marveling at his team’s future, saying (of the trade), “I’m still managing to get my head around the fact that we got Morgan Weaver at number two. I really am.

“My face just went blank ...,” Weaver said, about hearing her name from the podium, “ I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to Portland.’ I started saying my speech, and I was freezing up. And then, I was like, ‘No, it’s fine. This is where I want to go.’

“This amazing crowd. These amazing fans. These amazing players that I have. They have Tobin [Heath] and Lindsey [Horan]. They’re amazing people. Watching them on the national team and everything. I’m so excited to be able to have them as role models. Sinclair? I’ve very excited to be around these players.”

By the time Portland finished acquiring Thursday’s top two picks, a war chest which, last week, numbered seven picks had been reduced to four. The last of those, a fourth-round pick, would be sent to Reign FC in exchange for a player to be named later. Before that, though, the Thorns made their last pick of the day, a third-round selection who, along with veteran Emily Menges, gives the team a second defender from Georgetown.

“My favorite quote, listening about her as a person,” Parsons said of his day’s last draft pick, Nally, “is that she would always beat the head coach in on Monday morning. She would always get to the office and say, ‘Hey, Coach. Have you got video from the game? I want to learn …’ And the coach, every Monday, would say, ‘I’m not there, yet, Meghan. Give me until lunch time.’”

In the same vein, the Thorns may not yet be “there” when it comes to assessing how this class will impact the 2020 season. But just as any team would be when adding their list’s two top players, they’re hopeful. And excited.

“The aim is to be better,” Parsons said, “to put together a group of players that is better than we’ve ever seen in Portland. After a day like this, we’re way ahead of where we thought we could be, and that vision is very real.”