PHILADELPHIA — Even with Angel City’s No. 1 pick already turned in, Duke sophomore Michelle Cooper found herself in the middle of the biggest bombshell moment of the 2023 NWSL Draft.
The MAC Hermann trophy winner went No. 2 on Thursday, selected by the Kansas City Current after a league-shaking trade that sent U.S. women’s national team forward Lynn Williams to Gotham FC. Cooper is joining one of the most ambitious sides in the league, which acquired a number of high-profile players in the offseason, including Brazilian superstar Debinha and two-time USWNT world champion Morgan Gautrat.
Those kinds of big moves build a level of excitement and expectations that can threaten to swallow a young prospect whole. But on one of the biggest days of her young soccer career, Cooper made sure to keep things in the family.
“I don’t think I’ve completely digested quite yet that my life is gonna do a 180 as of today,” the 20-year-old told Just Women’s Sports the morning of the draft from a hotel room in Philadelphia, as she and her family and coaches prepared for the next step in her career.
The decision to go pro and leave Duke University two years early wasn’t an easy one, especially as many players still choose to exhaust their college eligibility before jumping to the NWSL and beyond. It’s only been four years since Tierna Davidson became the first player to forgo her final year of college and become the first non-senior to enter the NWSL draft.
Cooper’s move reflects both a personal decision and a shifting of norms.
“I made sure to talk with my mom, my sister, especially, and kind of get their viewpoints on it,” Cooper said. “And once I ultimately decided the dreams that I want to chase, going pro would help chase those dreams.”
She’s gotten nothing but support from her coaches at Duke, who have been with her every step of the way, but the final decision ultimately had to be hers.
“It’s definitely like a gut feeling, and that’s something that I trusted,” she said.
Once a top prospect decides to go pro, moving on to the NWSL isn’t a guarantee. Cooper has been tested at the U.S. youth levels and is coming off a season in which she recorded a team-high 19 goals and 11 assists for Duke. Increasingly, homegrown talent have the opportunity to join a growing global market, with past top prospects like Catarina Macario and Jessie Fleming making the choice to go to Europe instead.
When Cooper announced she’d be turning pro, she had to make another personal decision, and again she kept things close to home.
“Ultimately, I’m really close with my family, my mother and my sister, and I didn’t want to be too far away from them, and make sure that they can still visit me and I can still be in close contact with them,” she said. “And that was a lot easier if I stayed in the NWSL.”
Cooper admits entering the draft is daunting, but she went into the process with an open mind. After she had been selected Thursday night, Kansas City general manager Camille Levin Ashton confirmed that Cooper had trained with the Current during Duke’s offseason and had gotten a feel for their environment.
Even before her name was called, Cooper had high praise for the project the Current are building in Kansas City, saying their investment in facilities is one of the greatest examples of league progress, and she described their vision as one other clubs now have to follow.
Current head coach Matt Potter said at the draft that the feeling is mutual.
“The one common denominator is [Cooper and others] have all said, ‘We promise we’ll work hard.’ And the fact that they can follow through with that with the environment we have, the facilities and resources we have, that’s all a top, top player wants,” Potter said.
With her focus now 100 percent on soccer, Cooper also began to field offers from apparel brands, something she didn’t feel she always had time for in college even with the opportunities that came from Name, Image and Likeness rights.
“I honestly didn’t have a lot of experience with NIL (Name, Image and Likeness),” she said. “I was always making sure that I was just focused on doing my part on the field and staying present with my teammates off the field, and obviously making sure that the classroom part is staying up to par as well.”
When the time did come to choose a brand, she followed her instincts once again, signing with New Balance.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” she said. “It’s a private, family-owned company. And that’s honestly what I’m all about, like I said earlier, just being close to my family.”
With the draft finally over, Cooper has the entire world of professional soccer in front of her, joining a league she’s been watching for a long time. When asked if there are current NWSL players she’d like to emulate, she had a typically well-rounded answer.
“Diana Ordoñez, who likes to score headers, that’s one thing I want to do,” she said. “There’s people like Debinha who are just super creative and savvy on the ball, something else that I want to do. And then there’s people like Ali Krieger, who makes slide tackles and puts in the hard work.”
For a player who says she enjoys a game-winning assist as much as a goal, it’s not surprising that, as she transitions into the NWSL, she’s most excited about the connections she’s going to make.
“I’m excited to get to know new people and play with big names, people who’ve made history in women’s soccer,” she said. “To learn from them, to get to know who they are as people, to make friends. That’s what I’m most excited for.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.