The Portland Thorns have a lot on the line this week. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NWSL has not slowed down since crowning the Washington Spirit as champions in late November. In the past two weeks, there have been a flurry of trades and teams have submitted their protection lists as the league prepares for the expansion draft on Thursday and college draft on Saturday.

The expansion draft kicks off the events at 7 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network, the NWSL YouTube channel and Paramount+, where expansion clubs Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC will get to select one player from each NWSL team and a total of one U.S. allocated player.

Four clubs have made deals with the new California teams to receive full immunity in the expansion draft, including the Chicago Red Stars, Kansas City Current, NJ/NY Gotham FC and the North Carolina Courage. Racing Louisville FC and Portland Thorns FC are protected from Angel City, and the Washington Spirit have received protection from San Diego. In addition, OL Reign and the Spirit each have partial roster protection from Angel City.

It’s hard enough to keep track of all the trades, lists and draft orders, let alone process the potential effects of each club’s decisions. Now is a good time to get caught up, so let’s discuss where each team stands heading into a week that will define the 2022 NWSL season.

Thriving

San Diego Wave and Angel City FC

With the partial rosters they’ve formed through trades and signings, Angel City and San Diego are already posing threats in 2022. ACFC has pieced together a strong and versatile core of Sarah Gorden, Julie Ertz and Christen Press. Currently, they have the slight edge over San Diego, who did almost as well in signing Kailen Sheridan, Abby Dahlkemper, Tegan McGrady and Alex Morgan (if the deal with Orlando is finalized on Dec. 17, as The Athletic reported last week). That might change after San Diego takes advantage of their first picks in the first and third rounds of the college draft.

Racing Louisville

Since Racing Louisville traded Christen Press’ playing rights to Angel City for expansion protection, a natural first-round pick in the 2022 draft and $75,000 in allocation money, they’ve been setting themselves up for the future. They’re in the best position of any team in the college draft with the second, fourth and 16th overall picks. While it might take at least a year for the rookies adjust, Louisville could become a contender sooner than people think, especially with rising stars like Ebony Salmon and Cece Kizer. Kizer just completed a breakout season, in which she started all 22 games and led the team with five goals.

One development to watch this week is the status of Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato, players Racing left unprotected for the expansion draft. Both played key roles in Louisville’s attack this past season, with McCaskill tallying two goals and three assists in 22 starts and Nagasato contributing two goals and two assists in 18 starts. Worst case scenario, Louisville loses only one of them to San Diego since the club is fully protected from Angel City.

Washington Spirit

If anything, the 2021 NWSL champions are in position to be more dominant than they were this past season. They don’t have a pick in the college draft until No. 38, but their team is so young already that it hardly matters. The Spirit are a step ahead of most teams, since they’ve had their young players for a year already, won a championship and now get to build on that foundation with players like Trinity Rodman, who at 19 years old is still years younger than hopefuls in the college draft.

There’s also little stress heading into the expansion draft, where they’re fully protected from San Diego and their three U.S. allocated players (Emily Sonnett, Kelley O’Hara and Andi Sullivan) are protected from Angel City. Fullback Tegan McGrady has been Washington’s biggest loss after she was traded to the Wave earlier this month. Although Spirit interim coach Kris Ward preferred McGrady in the starting lineup, he often flipped between her and Julia Roddar, who is on the protected list and will enable Washington to keep a backline they’re familiar with.

OL Reign

With young and experienced players filling out positions at every level, OL Reign is one of the deepest and most well-rounded teams in the league. Even though they’ve left some big names unprotected in the expansion draft and they’re not selecting until No. 10 in the college draft, the Reign will be fine. Megan Rapinoe, for example, will be on the table for San Diego after the Reign protected Rose Lavelle with their U.S. allocation slot. Rapinoe and the rest of the Reign’s forwards are at least protected from Angel City, so they know they won’t lose more than one member of their league-leading offense that scored 35 goals in 2021. Other unprotected names to note are Tziarra King (protected from Angel City), Celia and starting defenders Lauren Barnes and Kristen McNabb.

‘Having an OK time’

North Carolina Courage

After trading Sam Mewis to Kansas City Current, North Carolina has a big hole to replace in the midfield. When the Courage were without Mewis for six weeks at the end of the season, while the U.S. women’s national team star was recovering from knee surgery, the center of the park fell apart. They also traded midfielders Cari Roccaro to Angel City and Angharad James to San Diego and picked up 2021 No. 3 pick Brianna Pinto from NJ/NY Gotham, so it looks like a midfield rebuild is in the works. Still, they would be smart to use their third overall pick on a midfielder on Saturday.

Chicago Red Stars

At first glance, the Red Stars’ decision to trade midfielder Julie Ertz and defender Sarah Gorden to Angel City FC is worrying. Gorden, known for speed and dribbling out of the back, has been a brick wall since cracking into Chicago’s starting XI as a rookie in 2016. Ertz sets the tone in the holding midfield by starting attacking plays. But the NWSL finalists played most of their season without Ertz, and while Gorden is a big loss, the Red Stars have depth on their back line.

Offense is an area Chicago is still building, so expect them to draft a midfielder or forward with the 11th overall pick in the college draft who can complement the skill sets of Kealia Watt and Mallory Pugh. Pugh is among four USWNT players who just re-signed with the Red Stars on multi-year contracts. That group includes Tierna Davidson, Casey Krueger and Alyssa Naeher, and they are all protected in the expansion draft.

Portland Thorns

The Thorns are so stacked with experience that any protected list was bound to leave off some high-level talent. On the Thorns’ unprotected list for Thursday’s expansion draft are defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg as well as world-leading goal scorer Christine Sinclair. Sauerbrunn and Sinclair should be safe considering retirement is on the horizon for both and Sinclair’s ties to Portland run deep.

Klingenberg, however, would be an intriguing option for San Diego (since the Thorns have received protection from Angel City through a trade). There’s also Angela Salem, another 33-year-old, if they value experience in the midfield more than defense. That said, the Thorns also reportedly have an agreement in place with San Diego that would protect their core players from selection.

NJ/NY Gotham FC

Defense wins championships, and an NWSL title is exactly what goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defender Ali Krieger said they’re after with their new team. Krieger’s aerial dominance and long-ball assists will add to a strong defense that already includes Imani Dorsey and NWSL Defender of the Year Caprice Dydasco. Gotham traded away some good players in Pinto and Sheridan, but Harris and Krieger more than make up for the losses.

Room for improvement

Orlando Pride

The Pride have dealt Krieger, Harris and Jodie Taylor, and now Alex Morgan is on her way out in a trade that San Diego officially announced on Monday. Orlando also has no full or partial roster protection in the expansion draft. All of this is OK because Orlando is in desperate need of a rebuild. Since joining the league in 2016, the Pride have made the playoffs just once in 2017. So far, they’ve acquired a 2022 first-round pick and a 2023 third-round pick from Gotham, and a conditional natural second- or third-round pick from San Diego. The Pride’s 2022 season will be murky, but based on the moves they’ve made and the addition of head coach Amanda Cromwell, they will be a new team in 2023.

Houston Dash

The Dash have been one of the quieter teams in the last couple of weeks, and now are one of just four teams that don’t have any full-roster protection in the expansion draft. Their protection list makes sense, but it will be interesting to see what happens with unprotected players Megan Oyster, Sophie Schmidt and up-and-coming midfielder Brianna Visallli. The biggest name to note on the unprotected list is Kristie Mewis, who seems the obvious pick for either Angel City or San Diego, unless the rumors that she’s planning to sign Tottenham Hotspur come true.

Kansas City Current 

Kansas City’s midfield is in a good place with Sam Mewis as the linchpin. Other than that, the Current haven’t done much to show they’re capable of improving upon their last-place regular season finish in 2021. Their highest pick in the college draft is 12th overall, and they haven’t made any further trades.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.