A Turn About the Room: Notes on this week's soccer happenings

It’s ok if this isn’t what you want to be reading about today; I am also overwhelmed! But in the off-chance this is a nice distraction, here’s this week’s turn about the room.

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Notes on the NWSL College Draft: I unfortunately have to start this segment with a disclaimer, which is that I’m not sure I understand the rules...at all. I keep weighing in online, before realizing I have no idea what I'm talking about! This is a sad realization for me, since the draft is something that I usually enjoy, and a day that frequently goes well for the Red Stars in particular. But it’s probably then a bit prophetic that Chicago has all but completely traded out of the first round after at one point holding four picks, because it looks like things could be a bit of a mess. So here’s what we know:

The 2021 NWSL College Draft will take place on the league’s official Twitch channel at 7pm EST on Wednesday January 13th 2021. The draft is usually a daytime event, but the virtual nature of this year’s iteration allows it to happen in the evening, which is nice I think for those watching and also for teams to talk through deals before it begins.

Some wacky deals will likely be necessary to get through this particular year, because it’s increasingly unclear what exactly the rules for those entering are going to be, exactly. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the NCAA has allowed seniors whose programs are anticipating a spring college season to enter the draft without giving up their eligibility for that competition, or for an NCAA tournament should that occur. As I understand it, the waiver only applies to the rescheduled 2020 season, and drafted players will have exhausted their eligibility by the end of this school year*. However, as per standard rules, if a player declares for the draft and falls through all four rounds without being selected, they can go back to college until their natural eligibility period is over. Players have a week post-draft to let their new NWSL teams know what they’re planning to do.

At least those were the rules until yesterday, when the league flipped the switch to have the draft apply to all seniors, not just those who declare this year. This comes after they reportedly only had 40 or so entries in the preliminary list, which would turn the whole event into something of a farce. It’s obvious the league is facing unprecedented issues in both player communication and choice this year, a situation not of their making, but it’s hard to see this rule change as anything but anti-labor.

The NWSL prides itself on its parity, which is something I admire, but the draft has morphed into one of the ugliest children of that pursuit. I’m not sure I mind the salary cap at this juncture (it forces teams to be smart and not just rich), and I also have little issue with the sharing of monetary assets from one team to another. But locking players into deals with teams they have no interest in playing for without their consent feels like a push to protect struggling teams over the goodwill of a very talented upcoming player pool. I don’t understand alienating the league’s face and future over teams that can’t do their homework, but the hurt feelings out of next week could affect the league for years. I dislike this move, it makes me want to abolish the draft altogether, and I don’t think it’s going to work.

So let’s talk about what those deals might look like. If, for example, Catarina Macario doesn’t think her prospects in the current NWSL are all that great and wants to spend a year in Europe before returning as a free agent, any team (for fun, let’s call them Team L) can draft her rights. Those rights belong to Team L not only for the 2021 NWSL season, but also for the entirety of the following offseason, only expiring at the beginning of the 2022 preseason*. This allows her to exist as an immovable yet tradeable asset, even if she never sets foot on an NWSL field in 2021 (though to be clear, seniors that don’t declare for the draft are barred from entering the league by other means for a full season anyway.)

That seems pretty bad, right? And like something that might put a player off the league altogether? I think the answer to that is currently more of a maybe. While there is no longer great incentive for any seniors to make a decision either way about their NWSL future until after the draft actually happens, there are rumblings that some future USWNT underclassmen might be jumping into the fray anyway. Players with good reason to go pro as soon as possible include Florida State junior Jaelin Howell and Stanford junior Naomi Girma (and as a bit of a surprise, possibly Trinity Rodman). Players with international futures are increasingly being encouraged to play against pro-level competition as soon as possible, and the financial incentives for making the jump are slowly but surely nearing equity with finishing a college degree. But it’s also simply still true that certain players aren’t going to want to play for certain teams, and the draft is set up to let those teams pick those players anyway. Eventually, something’s gotta give.

So, what does all of this mean? I honestly have no idea. I definitely think it’s just as likely as not that Chicago flips their final first round pick for a couple second rounders and calls the whole thing a success. I think it’s also possible that we’re going to see teams take some big swings and make some big misses, and the whole thing might feel like a bittersweet expansion draft rather than the exciting first event of a new season. We shall see.

*These are the things I think I understand, but might be wrong about! I keep reading and re-reading the rules and they’ve yet to tell me their secrets.

Notes on WSL postponements due to Covid positive tests: Well, speaking of giant messes! I don’t wish illness on anybody, but also c’mon guys, don’t go to Dubai for vacation while a pandemic is spiking across the globe! The morality of what exactly the WSL players who took those trips feel they owe to literally anybody in their lives aside, the optics of the WSL catering to larger clubs by allowing them to postpone games doesn’t feel that great - for example, Brighton had to play through their outbreak earlier this season.

Outside of clear irresponsible behavior, I’m worried about this year’s WSL season. It’s possible that vaccine distribution will come through properly and with the recent lockdowns everything will be able to proceed as planned, but I’m reminded of last year’s abandoned campaign. The current FA Cup round has been suspended, with team fates possibly being decided by a coin flip, and the non-elite status of many of the lower women’s tiers have caused operations to cease entirely. I’m not advocating for powering through a dangerous situation, but without at least some protocol changes, or at most some very creative rescheduling, I wonder if we don’t end up with games being lost completely again.

I’m also disappointed that we appear to have learned nothing from the things that did and did not work in 2020. I hope the NWSL is ready for what awaits them in February, because it could be ugly.

Notes on USWNT January Camp: SPEAKING OF NOT LEARNING THINGS. The USWNT is playing two international friendlies in Orlando at the end of January in front of fans, for some reason. I guess I hope Tierna Davidson is feeling fit, and that she plays. I’d also love for Mal Pugh to start the year off strong as well. Kristie Mewis back on the national team is the real deal.

It appears I have run out of steam. I don’t think these games are a good idea, and I don’t think this roster is necessarily indicative of who’s going to end up going to Tokyo, so that’s all I’ve got on this so far.

Stay safe, stay sane everybody. As they used to say on Another Round, drink water, take your meds, call your mom. We’ll have more draft coverage for you in the upcoming days.

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