On Thursday at 11:00 am in Baltimore, Maryland, the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League College Draft will commence with Portland Thorns FC making the opening selection. The North Carolina Courage, having won the 2019 NWSL Championship, should have been drafting 9th in the first round, but a trade with the Chicago Red Stars allowed them to move up to the 6th spot. Assuming there are no new trades, the Courage will draft 6th, 27th, 28th, and 36th.
The Zerboni trade changed the calculus
A week ago, North Carolina Courage fans fully expected right back to be the team’s biggest need. Merritt Mathias, the starter at the beginning of the season, tore her ACL toward the end of the 2019 season and is unlikely to be fit for the start of the season. Heather O’Reilly, the USWNT superstar, retired at the end of the season. Rookie Hailey Harbison tore her ACL just before the season, which prevented her from valuable game experience during the season, and it’s uncertain whether she will be fully fit to start the season. With all of that, it seemed like the Courage would absolutely need to draft someone to fight for that spot at outside back. Then the trade news dropped, with midfielder McCall Zerboni heading to Sky Blue FC in exchange for the rights to defender Hailie Mace.
Mace made three appearances for the Senior USWNT during her college career before being drafted second-overall in the 2019 NWSL College Draft. Unfortunately, the situation with Sky Blue FC looked dire for top prospects, and Mace decided to go play in Sweden instead of joining the squad. With her rights expiring, Sky Blue was desperate to get something out of Mace’s draft capital, so they traded for Zerboni. The move solidified North Carolina’s defense and took the draft from a necessity to a luxury. North Carolina now arguably has the strongest team in all three phases of the game as they come off of back-to-back NWSL championships.
So what should the Courage focus on in the draft?
With solid footing, the Courage can build depth
There is absolutely no space in the current Courage starting lineup. Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald are the best striking duo in the league, and the backup, Kristen Hamilton, scored 9 goals in 2019. Last year’s first-round pick, Leah Pruitt, is recovering from a knee injury of her own, but she would still project ahead of any new addition, as would McKenzie Meehan. Of course, I’ve felt this way before about North Carolina’s fowards, and that hasn’t stopped head coach Paul Riley from drafting Ashley Hatch (2017), Frannie Crouse (2018), and Pruitt (2019) in the first round. If a great striking option, like Ashley Sanchez, is available at the 6th spot, I’m sure that Riley won’t be able to resist pulling the trigger. Otherwise, I think he will end up looking elsewhere on the pitch in the first round.
With the loss of Zerboni, who was projected to be the first-backup for any player in the midfield, the Courage are now shallow in their position of greatest strength. Barring injury, there is virtually no chance that any of Debinha, Denise O’Sullivan, Samantha Mewis, or Crystal Dunn are going to be replaced by a rookie player. Those are four of the best, if not the four best, midfielders in the NWSL. They are one of the strongest midfields in the world of women’s soccer, but the drop off between those four and the first replacement is now unbelievably steep. You’ve got Meredith Speck, who is solid and hard working, but lacking flair. Then there’s Cari Roccaro, who seemed to garner Riley’s admiration during 2019 for her hard work, but is otherwise two classes below the rest of the starting lineup. Finally, the diminutive Lauren Milliet, who appeared in one match and worked hard, but otherwise is an extremely raw player. I’m also uncertain about whether she has the physical presence to make the team. Drafting a midfielder makes too much sense to focus anywhere else, especially with Debinha, Dunn, and Mewis all expected to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There is one caveat here, and that is if Riley expected to move Mathias further up the field. She is perfectly capable of playing in the midfield, and if Mace locks down the RB role during her recovery, Mathias could easily find herself as the first alternate to any spot in the midfield.
The leaves the defense. Outside back is locked down on both sides, but the Courage are still weak at centerback. Sure, Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg are extremely talented and will hold onto their starting roles with little difficulty, but Kaliegh Kurtz, the first alternate, had a difficult 2019 campaign. Her year was so tough that she was replaced by Cari Roccaro. That means that during the Olympics, when Dahlkemper and Erceg are both probably gone, someone is going to have to step up. If that can be a new first-round rookie it would be even better.
Thus, if we are basing everything purely on need, a versatile midfielder or a solid centerback would be the most logical choices. Of course, the Courage have made it to the Championship each time that Riley has selected a first-round striker, so maybe we shouldn’t try to shake things up.
How to Watch:
The draft can be watched on the league’s website, their FaceBook page, or their YouTube account. It is scheduled to start at 11:00 a.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center.