We are one week removed from the 2023 NWSL Draft. A new 48 players have been drafted to all 12 teams. Some teams had a great draft, others not so much. Here are WSX's grades for each team's first pick in the draft.
Angel City: In a three-team trade, Angel City FC acquired the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NWSL Draft on January 5. One week later, they selected Los Angeles native Alyssa Thompson. Thompson is the youngest player ever selected in the NWSL Draft, beating out Trinity Rodman who was selected in 2021 by the Washington Spirit. Thompson made her senior national team debut this past fall at Wembley Stadium during the USWNT’s 2-1 loss to England.
Despite never attending college, Thompson has a stacked resume. She is the only female player to have played in the MLS Next league after joining Total Futbol Academy’s U-19 team at the age of 17. At 15, she verbally committed to play at Stanford University before ultimately deciding to forego her NCAA eligibility and declare for the NWSL Draft.
Angel City lost Christen Press about halfway through the 2022 regular season due to a torn ACL. Another one of the club’s star forwards, Sydney Leroux, dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season as well. As they make their returns, Thompson will join an experienced front line that will certainly cause chaos to opposing defenses as the season gets underway.
After joining the NWSL last season, Angel City had an impressive first season despite the number of injuries they dealt with throughout the year. Depth will be an important piece of this season as we get closer to the 2023 Women’s World Cup. While ACFC could have used a solid attacking midfielder, passing up on Alyssa Thompson would’ve been an undeniable mistake.
Chicago Red Stars: The Red Stars had the seventh overall pick of the night and drafted Penn State forward Penelope Hocking. Hocking led her team to their ninth Big Ten Tournament title and to the third round of the NCAA tournament with her 11 assists and seven goals during the season. Before joining the Nittany Lions for her last year of eligibility, Hocking played for the University of Southern California and became their all-time leading goal scorer in 2021. Hocking ended her time at USC with 61 goals and 33 assists.
This offseason was nothing less than eventful for the Chicago Red Stars who saw veteran players Morgan Gautrat, Rachel Hill, and Danny Colaprico opt for free agency instead of returning to the team. After losing a few key pieces to their midfield the Red Stars needed to make big moves that would fill the gap of these three players—Hill and Colaprico had a combined 80 interceptions and 37 chances created in the 2022 NWSL season. Chicago’s chosen draftee also needed to be able to connect with captain and midfield legend, Vanessa Dibernadro, who created 23 chances and had 39 interceptions this past season. Draftee Penelope Hocking is a goal-scoring machine, and combining her skills with Mallory Swanson and Kealia Watt (if she returns) is sure to be dangerous. This pick will definitely benefit the Red Stars, but the question is whether or not it will leave their midfield needing help.
Houston Dash: Sophie Hirst was drafted to the Houston Dash as the eighth pick of the second round. Hirst is a dynamic midfielder coming from Harvard who started in 56 games and appeared in 60, scoring 10 goals and accumulating 12 assists throughout her time with the Crimson. Hirst earned an All-Ivy First Team selection in her final season where she played an average of 75 minutes, helping Harvard earn its second straight bid to the NCAA tournament and receive a tournament home game for the first time since 2014.
Houston’s current midfield of Sophie Schmidt, Shea Groom, Natalie Jacobs, and recent signing Havana Solaun is great—the addition of Hirst will be beneficial. She can find the back of the net and is a natural playmaker. Adding to the attack of Sanchez, Salmon, and now Ordóñez who was acquired in a pre-draft trade, Hirst will make for a great addition to the team and balance out a midfield that needed more attacking-minded players in it.
Kansas City Current: After trading for the second overall pick, Kansas City drafted forward Michelle Cooper from Duke University. Cooper had a breakout season with Duke last year and won the 2022 MAC Hermann Trophy. She scored a team-high 19 goals and recorded 11 assists across the 2022 season. She was ranked second overall in the NCAA in goals and points with 49. Cooper led Duke to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament this season before falling to Alabama 3-2. She also has experience in the ranks of the U.S. Youth National Team, winning the Golden Boot and Golden Ball in the Concacaf Women’s U-20 championships.
Kansas City traded Lynn Williams to NJ/NY Gotham FC in order to obtain the second overall pick, and they got a player very similar to Williams. At only 20 years old, Cooper has a bright future and she will definitely help this Kansas City team reach another championship game. While the Current need more defensive stability, between trades, they lost Elyse Bennett and Lynn Williams this offseason and now have Cooper to balance out the attack. With the number of picks the Current had throughout the draft, they made sure to hit all necessary points which makes a pick like Cooper feel even better.
NJ/NY Gotham FC: Gotham traded away the second overall pick in exchange for Lynn Williams from Kansas City, but still had a top-five pick thanks to a trade earlier in the day with Racing Louisville. With the fourth overall pick, they selected Jenna Nighswonger from Florida State University. Nighswonger ended her FSU career with a total of 72 points, putting her ninth all-time in school history. Those 72 points can be broken down into 19 goals and 34 assists, of which six goals and 16 assists were recorded during the 2022 season. Nighswonger doubled her assist count from the 2021 season where she recorded eight and her 34 all-time is second in school history. She was the ACC Tournament MVP and helped FSU go to three straight College Cups.
Between the likes of Nighswonger and Williams moving to a Gotham FC squad that already has Midge Purce, the club is bound to score some goals this season. Last year, Gotham struggled to efficiently utilize their midfield to connect with their front line. With a provider such as Nighswonger and high attacking forwards in Purce and Williams, there is hope that goals will be more plentiful this season, as they only scored 16 last season. Nighswonger is also likely to help add depth to the midfield as she will be competing against McCall Zerboni, Kristie Mewis, and 2021 Rookie of the Year candidate, Victoria Pickett.
While picking a player of the caliber of Nighswonger was probably Gotham’s best bet this early in the draft, the team definitely struggled just as much on defense as they did on offense in 2022. Having only two picks in the draft and neither being a defender, Gotham will need to turn outwards to find someone to bolster their backline.
North Carolina Courage: North Carolina immediately turned heads when they selected Notre Dame forward Olivia Wingate with the sixth overall pick. Wingate became the highest-drafted player from Notre Dame since Angel City’s Cari Roccaro in 2016. With the Fighting Irish, Wingate made the All-ACC Third Team, the United Soccer Coaches Third Team All-Region, and the ACC All-Academic Team as a senior in 2021. She also led the ACC in shot accuracy with a .640, started every game, and played over 1,563 minutes during her senior season.
The Courage needed a proven goalscorer with the departure of Debinha for Kansas City. It doesn’t seem that Wingate is the perfect person for the job. While her shot accuracy is high, her conversion rate is not. North Carolina could have afforded to gamble if they did not later trade away goal-scoring machine Diana Ordóñez minutes after this pick. With more lethal forwards such as Izzy D’Aquila and Penelope Hocking still on the table at the sixth pick, North Carolina could have held off drafting Wingate until later and gotten her at a better value. This pick is not bad, merely confusing.
OL Reign: Unfortunately for OL Reign, their first pick of the night wasn’t until late in the second round. With the 19th overall pick of the night, OL Reign selected defender Shae Holmes. Holmes is an attacking-minded defender who had six assists in the 2022 season, tying her for most assists. She was also selected for the All-Pac-12 Second Team the same year.
OL Reign had a strong campaign for the championship this past NWSL season with an unusual loss in the semifinals to knock them out. With players such as Sofia Huerta, Alana Cook, Lauren Barnes, and Goalkeeper of the Year nominee Phallon Tullis-Joyce, the Reign has a strong backline. There’s no doubt a rookie defender could learn and improve greatly under the wings of the Reign’s backline.
Although the Reign are stacked defensively, having another player to step in during World Cup play and fill in the gaps of potential USWNT World Cup players Sofia Huerta and Alana Cook is good preparation. Overall, OL Reign have a solid team but could use some fresh legs in the midfield to help when Rose Lavelle and Quinn will likely be away at the World Cup with their respective national teams. This pick is definitely a good one, but could potentially harm the team if any of their starting midfielders take a knock during the season.
Orlando Pride: With the third overall pick in the draft, the Orlando Pride selected midfielder and defender Emily Madril. Madril played three years at Florida State University while having to sit out consecutive seasons in 2018 and 2019 due to injury. In her three playing years, she never missed a game and started all but one, only missing nineteen minutes between both the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Despite commonly being listed as a midfielder, Madril spent time on the Seminoles’ backline as a center-back, helping them become one of the best defenses in the nation. She recorded nine points in 2021 and helped the Seminoles record 14 shutouts on their way to the national title. She decided to forego her final year of eligibility at Florida State and signed with the NWSL until 2025 before going on loan in Sweden. Her rights were gained by the Pride once they drafted her.
Orlando struggled both in the midfield and on defense last season, and having a player like Emily Madril on their team would help in either place. They lost Meggie Doughtery-Howard the day of the draft, who played a huge role in the Pride’s midfield last season after they lost Marta to injury. Orlando’s defense wasn’t perfect last season either, especially with the loss of Ali Krieger, and they definitely were looking at that going into this year’s draft. While they drafted multiple other midfielders and forwards, we will probably see Madril end up holding down their backline. Madril’s top-level experience and resilience are exactly why she went third in this year’s draft and it will be very enjoyable to watch her find her place in an Orlando team looking for success.
Portland Thorns: With the fifth overall pick, the Portland Thorns selected midfielder and defender Reyna Reyes out of the University of Alabama. Alabama’s 2022 season was one for the history books, and so was Reyes’. The 2022 SEC Defender of the Year has always been a solid player but this season was hers, taking Alabama all the way to the national semifinals for the first time ever. In 27 games this season, Reyes and the Alabama defense only allowed a total of 20 goals, averaging less than one per game. Reyes herself scored eight goals this season and recorded one assist.
Portland has a pretty stacked team from youth to veterans across the board, but Reyes is a solid pick for them as during the World Cup cycle, it is very possible Reyes could find herself in a starting role. The Thorns’ midfield consists of multiple players who are mainstays in their respective national teams, so Reyes could definitely hear her number called at some point in 2023. She also adds a spark to late games and provides depth for the holding defensive midfield spot that Sam Coffey currently owns. There is no specific position that desperately needed help for Portland, so picking a versatile defender that also works as a midfielder will be a good get in the long run.
Racing Louisville FC: After trading away their first-round pick to Gotham FC in exchange for Paige Monaghan, Racing Louisville did not pick first until the second round. With the 16th overall pick, Racing selected forward and midfielder Kayla Fischer out of The Ohio State University. The two-time captain now joins the likes of three other Buckeyes who were selected in the NWSL draft: Lindsay Agnew (2nd Round in 2016), Nichelle Prince (3rd Round in 2016), and Izzy Rodriguez (4th Round in 2021).
Fischer had an excellent collegiate season, scoring 28 goals and assisting 20 over the course of her five seasons. This past season Fischer scored her first career hat trick during a five-game stretch where she scored seven goals. During her time as a Buckeye, she helped the team reach four NCAA tournaments, a quarter of the program's history of 16 appearances. Fischer is eighth all-time in goals, fifth all-time in assists, and second all-time in shots during her five years at Ohio State.
Racing Louisville had trouble with scoring goals this past season, so having a dynamic playmaker like Fischer will benefit them greatly. They did struggle on defense, which begs the question of whether the club should have chosen a defender instead. But Fischer is a solid addition to the team. She can clearly get shots off and working with players like Paige Monaghan on the front line and Savannah Demelo in the midfield will give her plenty of possibilities to score goals and create chances.
San Diego Wave FC: San Diego wasn’t able to squeeze themselves into the first round, but they were as close as possible with the very first pick in the second round. With the 13th overall pick, they selected Sierra Enge of Stanford University. Enge, a midfielder, is a hometown kid and an NCAA champion with the Cardinal. In the past two seasons, she started in every game recording 15 total points across the two years. Enge only started two games her freshman year as well, but played in 23 games, recording 4 points. While this may not seem like a lot compared to other players on the board, Enge had a huge impact in the Stanford midfield.
With youth national team experience, Enge is a solid pickup for San Diego. Their midfield was in need of some depth and Enge will provide that and more as it is possible she challenges for a starting role. With Taylor Kornieck moving back into the midfield and Emily van Egmond still with the Wave, it won’t be easy but it is possible. Also, picking up a midfielder was the best bet for this San Diego team as between veterans and youth in the front and back lines, they are stacked. They need some midfield help and Enge will certainly provide it.
Washington Spirit: A wild trade sequence landed the Spirit with the 26th overall pick. With it, they drafted forward Nicole Douglas of Arizona State University. With the Sun Devils, Douglas was the 2021 NCAA scoring leader, named to the All-Pac-12 First team, and was the first Arizona State player to be named an All-American since 2002. In addition to being the scoring leader in 2021, she also had the highest goals per game (0.95) and points per game (2.25). Spirit Head Coach Mark Parsons praised her attacking style, noting “what we’ve seen is this final pass and the ability to arrive late and score goals is special, and something to complement the great attacking players we have.”
Despite the Spirit’s attack lacking Douglas’ line-breaking ability, Washington came into the draft needing one defender. By the end of the night, they needed two. Drafting a solid defender like the University of North Carolina’s Tori Hansen or even a defensive midfielder like Duke’s Sophie Jones would have addressed the dearth of defenders before the Spirit traded away starting center back Emily Sonnett later in the night. Douglas is a solid pick, especially considering her potential value, but it seems that they failed to address a larger need with this pick.