Mal Pugh and Sarah Woldmoe to Chicago: Breaking the Trade Down

Today, Chicago announced a trade with Sky Blue FC, acquiring Sarah Woldmoe and Mallory Pugh in exchange for the 4th and 8th first round picks in the 2021 NWSL College Draft, a conditional first round pick in the 2022 NWSL College Draft, and an international slot in 2021 and 2022.

Whew, ok! Let’s break this down a little bit.

The first place probably to start, in what looks like a pretty lopsided deal in Chicago’s favor, is the personal wishes of both players. After the announcement, Sky Blue General Manager Alyse Lahue put out on Twitter that getting Woldmoe back to the Midwest to be closer to her husband was a factor and a sacrifice the club was willing to make after years of dedicated service from their central midfielder and captain. As for Pugh, there were rumblings since the end of the Fall Series that she was still looking for a permanent landing place, to both further her career and to get back into the USWNT picture.

Whenever you have two players who are willing to be dealt, for whatever reason, you’re working from a disadvantage, and I think that was a main factor in Chicago not having to actually ship anyone out to New Jersey in order to get this trade over the line. Why Sky Blue didn’t anticipate this and preemptively protect Jennifer Cudjoe from the Louisville Expansion Draft is beyond me, but this is a Chicago Red Stars publication and I will have to leave that reckoning to those to the East.

So let’s look at this from a Chicago perspective, and maybe a good place to start is what they gave up. They still have one pick in the first round of the 2021 Draft (the 6th), and with the way the pandemic has likely altered what was originally considered to be a very strong class, I understand Rory Dames flipping the possibility of good players for two players he already knows to be good. Consider this deal to be not unlike the Rachel Hill deal from last year, except on hyperdrive. This is something Dames has said before, and it’s something Chicago appears to live by, but draft picks are only as valuable as what teams are willing to give up for them. So if you’ve got a club whose hand is already forced by the wishes of players, that value goes up. No one negotiates this stuff like Dames, and no one rehabs players like Chicago.

This does probably mean the Red Stars won’t be doing any wild deals with Louisville to try to secure the first pick to grab Catarina Macario, but Dames highlighted in today’s press conference that there are too many scenarios (not necessarily a Macario one, but in general) where a team can really get burned by this year’s draft. It’s unclear who exactly will be declaring, and even after a pick gets made players have a variety of options, including signing a deal in Europe or waiting to join the team until after a spring season. Player choice is a good thing in this sport, but those choices might not align with what the club is trying to do. Macario is also going to be a very expensive player, in that she can forgo USWNT allocation in favor of an NWSL team mounted allocation system to max out her salary options, which is what she's worth while also being something only a few teams are probably going to bite on.

Chicago giving up a 2022 first round pick is unlike them, but I also think they know what they’re doing. Drafts are (let’s say it again) only as valuable as each team determines them to be, and if the Red Stars are in a desperate need for someone in particular next year, they have the ability to make that happen. The international slots are immaterial - Chicago either does or does not want what they want out of that market; better to ship those out for something in hand rather than sit on them in an attempt to wait things out.

So that’s what Chicago gave up, let’s talk about what they got!

I’ve said this on the podcast before, but we all knew that if the Red Stars were going to keep up with attacking moves made by other top teams, they were going to have to get fresh talent into their front line. Mallory Pugh is a (still young!) player with a huge upside in ability, who has unfortunately had a rough go of things in terms of her injury status, but also in that she suffered through the final years of the Jim Gabarra Washington Spirit coaching regime during her most formative years as a professional. That Spirit team had the ability to push any player into stagnation, and she never got enough time with either the Richie Burke system or Freya Coombe’s Sky Blue to get a sure footing in her progression for the next part of her career. I can’t speak to why Pugh felt that Sky Blue wasn’t going to be that team, but I can say that Chicago is the perfect place for a player of both her caliber and her personal goals - look at what they’ve done for Morgan Gautrat. I also believe that part of that journey is trusting her to start playing to her potential. The Chicago coaching staff clearly has imbued that trust already, and I’m inclined to follow suit.

But you also have to remember here exactly how good Pugh is at her best. She’s fast, she’s tricky on the ball, and she’s a monster in transition on the counter who can keep up with Kealia Watt and get on the end of those sick through balls that every member of Chicago’s midfield has the ability to send through a back line. I can’t see the future, but the road to success is clear.

In terms of Sarah Woldmoe, Chicago is getting a USWNT bubble level midfielder, and a proven leader and professional. Her move here was the most personal one, and I’m not sure exactly what conversations were had about her role on the pitch so much as her desire to be closer to family and the understood value of what she brings to a team. But I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person to point out that Chicago’s midfield is getting increasingly crowded. In a way, picking up Woldmoe reminds me vaguely of when the Red Stars drafted Tierna Davidson in 2019. She’s a no brainer to add to the squad if offered, but from the moment she joined the roster you had to wonder what exactly that meant for Katie Naughton. As it turned out, Naughton got a shot to fight for that roster spot, and then she was sent to Houston to thrive in a place where she’s the number one CB.

It’s way too early to say what exactly Chicago’s midfield is going to look like this year and beyond, but you can kind of see the machinations forming. Ertz will play midfield before the Olympics, but there’s no need for her there after they’re over. Woldmoe, Colaprico, Gautrat, and DiBernardo are all viable options for the other midfield roles, but Chicago’s diamond days are also likely over (check back here in 6 months and let’s find out if I’m wrong). There’s going to be some heat on long-standing Chicago starters to bring their A game every time they show up to practice. This isn’t to put anyone on trade watch, but just to reiterate some things we already know. This is a core with one to three years left in them. They need to be pushed to get a trophy out of that time. And when that period is over, we’re going to see an evolution in this team. And if there’s something we learned in 2020, change waits for no one, and one year is nothing when it’s all flying by.

All in all, Chicago is much stronger this afternoon than they were this morning, and it’s so refreshing to have some exciting news about this team again. They picked up a piece they desperately needed, they bolstered one of their greatest strengths, and they also teased some more updates in January that will keep the Red Stars moving in step with the best teams in the world. We also didn’t have to say goodbye to anybody, and that’s one of the nicest gifts a team can give a person during a dark holiday season.

Hope you’re doing well everybody, more from us soon.

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