Sophia Smith, the No. 1 pick of the Portland Thorns in 2020, won NWSL MVP last season. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the NWSL will hold an in-person draft for the first time since January 2020. On that day, weeks before the world shut down amid a global pandemic, a chaotic flurry of activity only possible on a draft day floor ushered in the next generation of star talent and dramatically reshaped the current player pool in the NWSL.

Top 2022 draft picks Sophia Smith, Ashley Sanchez, Taylor Kornieck and Morgan Weaver have been at the center of some of the biggest league moments in the last two years. But their journeys, which began at the 2020 draft, showed that even the best-laid plans for young talent can go awry.

Draft day chaos sets the scene

From the very first week of January 2020, Portland had targeted the first overall pick in the draft. On Jan. 8, the Thorns acquired the No. 1 pick from the Pride in exchange for the rights to USWNT defender Emily Sonnett and Australian international Caitlin Foord, as well as other draft picks. The understanding across the league was that the Thorns intended to select Smith, a sophomore out of Stanford and a U.S. youth national team standout.

With allocation money in play for the first time, the draft-floor moves weren’t relegated to the No. 1 pick. As soon as the draft began, deals materialized across the league. The Red Stars traded their No. 4 and No. 5 picks for the No. 2 and No. 3 picks held by Sky Blue (now Gotham), and then immediately flipped the No. 2 pick to Portland for later-round picks and $70,000 in allocation money, as well as No. 3 to Orlando for forward Rachel Hill and future draft assets.

The Washington Spirit then traded up, sending Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) to Sky Blue for the No. 4 pick and other assets, which included Sky Blue’s 2021 natural first-round pick.

In retrospect, before a single selection had even been made, those moves redefined the distribution of talent across the league for years to come. Portland selected Smith and Morgan Weaver with the first two picks in the draft, Orlando took Taylor Kornieck at No. 3, and Washington drafted Ashley Sanchez at No. 4.

All four players have become league mainstays since then, with Smith, Kornieck (now with expansion side San Diego) and Sanchez all making the USWNT roster for World Cup and Olympic qualifying. Smith is the superstar she was promised to be, scoring 11 goals for the U.S. and 14 for the Thorns in 2022 on the way to winning NWSL MVP, NWSL Final MVP and USWNT Player of the Year.

Smith and Weaver just missed out on the NWSL Shield with the Thorns in 2022 before helping the team win a league-record third championship in October. Sanchez won the 2021 NWSL Championship (alongside Trinity Rodman, the player the Spirit selected with Sky Blue’s 2021 first-round pick acquired in the 2020 deal), while Kornieck had a breakout year with San Diego in 2022, contributing to the best finish ever for an NWSL expansion team in its inaugural season.

Morgan Weaver followed Sophia Smith to the Thorns as the No. 2 pick of the 2020 draft. (Jose Argueta/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The impact of the 2020 draft class also hasn’t been limited to the top four picks. Zoe Morse, Chicago’s third-round selection, blossomed into a cornerstone of the Red Stars’ defense two years later. Sam Hiatt, taken in the fourth round by OL Reign, is now a starting center-back for the 2022 Shield winners. Kate Del Fava and Addisyn Merrick, drafted in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, represented Kansas City against Smith and Weaver’s Thorns in the 2022 championship game.

The fourth round of the 2020 draft also produced Kaiya McCullough, who spoke out about the verbal abuse she experienced while playing for former Spirit coach Richie Burke and was a key voice in the NWSL’s recent reckoning over misconduct.

The rookie season that wasn’t

While the strength of the 2020 draft class is now obvious, their rookie year that followed was anything but expected. The pandemic suspended NWSL regular-season play for an entire year, replacing it with a one-month Challenge Cup in Utah.

“My first season was a little more just getting a feel for the league, like how I need to play, what I need to get better at,” Smith told Just Women’s Sports in October. “And now I feel like I can just be myself.”

“I actually was still in school at the time,” Weaver told Just Women’s Sports this summer about the early months of 2020. “I was doing all online classes so I could be here early to train.”

Soon, word spread that NWSL training had been suspended — first for a weekend, then a week, and finally indefinitely.

Smith, Weaver and company can be forgiven for needing a little extra time to find their feet in the pros. The 2020 rookies didn’t actually get to experience a full season until 2021, instead quarantining with each other while playing a 23-game tournament at the facilities of the then-Utah Royals.

“I think uncertainty is the right word to characterize that whole year, honestly, for everyone,” said Morse, who has since left the Red Stars to sign with WSL club Brighton & Hove Albion through 2024.

For Weaver and Morse, the twists and turns of the 2020 preseason mirrored the uncertainty of their first years as professionals.

“Whenever I’m asked about that year, I always say that I think it was honestly maybe easier for us rookies,” Morse said. “Because we had no idea what to expect compared to everyone else on the team.”

“I just wanted to know what was going on, and no one knew,” Weaver said. “And that’s the thing that I think helped me get through it, was no one knew what was going on.”

Chicago's Zoe Morse and Washington's Ashley Sanchez, both 2020 draft picks, go head-to-head in the Challenge Cup. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In Utah, playing time came fast and furious, as did a lot of downtime. The pressures of making it through a month-long quarantine while playing high-level soccer, as the country reckoned with issues of racial injustice after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, forged quick bonds that had a ripple effect off the field.

“Once we got to Utah, we were essentially quarantined with our team for 34 days, or however long it was,” Morse said. “So I really got to make some connections with my teammates that I probably wouldn’t have in a typical season, just because we were literally eating every single meal together. We were with each other all the time.”

“I feel like in general, going somewhere and living there for a month in a bubble in a hotel, I think it made our team closer,” Weaver said. “Now looking back at it, I did enjoy the time that I was there, even though I also did not.”

The 2020 campaign delayed the beginning of what has become a dangerous partnership between Smith and Weaver. During last year’s championship run, Weaver took on more responsibility out wide to feed Smith centrally, contributing three assists and seven goals on top of Smith’s MVP campaign.

That summer, however, Smith missed the entire Challenge Cup with a knee injury, though she did play four games in the 2020 Fall Series.

“We never actually played with each other much in 2020,” Weaver said, noting it also took time to build chemistry with longtime Thorns captain and forward Christine Sinclair.

Smith credits Sinclair for helping her through her first two years with the Thorns. The No. 1 pick felt the pressure to perform, both internally and externally, but she found ways to stay patient.

“I feel like I found my place in Portland and within the team,” she said. “That goes to show a lot about my teammates and my coaching staff, who just allow me to do that to find myself and to really just be myself.”

Not every 2020 draftee progressed at the same rate, but many of them arrived in similar places in 2022 after getting a full season’s worth of experience. The short spurts of playing time in a Challenge Cup or a Fall Series contrast with the rigors of a regular season, and finding consistency in performance can be key to development.

Kornieck didn’t get the benefit of the 2020 Challenge Cup at all after the Pride had to bow out due to a COVID-19 outbreak, but she recognized how far she’s come during her second full season in the league.

“I think this is the first year where I was really starting to understand the concepts,” Kornieck told reporters after a match with San Diego last June. “I can see my growth from the past two years in the league now, [and] I owe it all to the team.”

Looking ahead to the 2023 season, the true rookies of 2020 are now closer to veteran status themselves, with hard-earned lessons informing the way they approach the game.

For Smith, even with all her accolades this past year, the pressures haven’t changed.

“I try not to change the way I look at things with the more success I have,” she said. “I still want to be Sophie and carry myself the same way.”

Morse, too, embraces the bigger picture.

“I think it shows on the field that [the 2020 draft class has] a bit of a different approach to the game, because we saw it get taken away in our first year,” she said. “Veteran players have similar situations when the leagues were folding and that sort of stuff. So this was kind of our iteration of seeing what we love doing being taken away, and just knowing that we are so grateful to be out here doing what we do.”

Smith was one of the first underclassmen to be drafted into the NWSL, but she will be far from the last. As the next wave of players hear their own names called on Thursday, they’ll have a chance to learn from the ones before them, whose rookie experiences were unlike anything seen before.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.