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Mock NWSL expansion draft: Who Angel City, San Diego should pick


Welcome to Just Women’s Sports’ NWSL mock expansion draft, where we’ll be simulating Thursday’s draft featuring Angel City FC and San Diego FC, when the two new franchises will have a chance to fill out their rosters.

Trades have been made. Unprotected lists have been filed. Now it’s time to see who will head to California.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ve recruited feature writer Claire Watkins (@ScoutRipley) to take the role of Angel City, while NWSL vet and JWS’ Integrated Partnerships Manager Haley Kopmeyer (@hkopmeyer) will play San Diego.

JWS Staff: Any opening comments you’d like to make after two weeks of blockbuster trades in the NWSL?

Claire Watkins: When I was going over the list, I was looking at names, and I was like, oh, that’s a great player. And then I went back and I looked at the rules, and I was like, I actually can’t take that player.

Even if you just look at Louisville’s list — Louisville’s got four or five really good players that you could pick up, but as Angel City, they’re not available to me. Or forwards from OL Reign, same deal. There are some good players there, but I think teams have done a pretty good job of limiting it without looking like they’re limiting it from the lists we have.

Haley Kopmeyer: And there’s stuff that we don’t even know about. I look at some of these players on this list that I know are available to me as San Diego and I’m like, there’s no way that player is available. I don’t believe it for a minute. I don’t know what their agreement is. I don’t know what third child is going to get named Becky Sauerbrunn for them not to take Becky, but she’s not going anywhere.

Claire: We saw Louisville be kind of ruthless with this last year, where they saw some of those rights that got dangled out and took them. A big one that is sitting out there is Kristie Mewis. Who’s going to grab Kristie Mewis and say, “She plays for our team now?” With the understanding that she might not be playing in the league next year—

Haley: Or that she’s practicing with another team right now.

Claire: Exactly. But you say, well, there’s a valuable asset. We’re going to grab that. But also, because you can only take one player per team, you can’t really go after rights for this year because you need players who can play day one.

Haley: Last year, it was just Louisville. Now, you’re competing with another team. You’re going up against somebody else for a limited number of players. I look back at my predictions for Louisville last year, and I got none of them right. But if I were to rate how they did in that draft, it’s not that well. I mean, it’s probably not a failing grade, but I don’t think anybody’s giving them anything above a B.

Claire: The most telling thing is that they have six players available that they drafted in the expansion draft last year that they did not protect this year.

Haley: Correct. Obviously, they got something out of the Christen Press trade. That probably will come back, ultimately, to be a big thing for them. But in the short term, they don’t even have the same coach that picked all of these players.

Claire: Ultimately, I think a lot of teams are working with the California teams in order to make this particular draft have as little relevance as possible. Some of that was, obviously teams would rather get something back than let a player go for nothing. I also think, for the California teams, that there’s an element of goodwill here. If this draft seems a little bit underwhelming, I think it’s by design, because they’re not trying to do anything super dramatic that would affect a player’s livelihood or rights or anything like that. I don’t think that that’s the energy this year.

Haley: An article came out not that long ago, and Tori Huster was quoted saying, like, “This year L.A. and San Diego are actually taking into consideration where players want to be and where they want to go.” By virtue of last year, we saw that that isn’t necessarily the default. I think the California clubs are doing their homework. I don’t think anybody’s going to feel super blindsided. I think people who end up with these new teams will be people that want to go there. I think most people within these organizations probably already know who’s being taken.

And I think both of these teams want to spend money and are not afraid of spending money.

Claire: Yes. Which is, again, another good reason not to pick up any of the allocated players, because you get paid if you don’t.

Haley: Should we jump into it?

Claire: Let’s do it.

JWS Staff: Angel City is officially on the clock.

Claire: With the first pick of the 2021 expansion draft, I, Angel City, choose Megan Oyster of the Houston Dash. Reasons why: I think she’s a great player. Angel City needs another center back. She’s a Chicago-land native. She and Sarah Gorden already know each other. She played at UCLA. This is my one pick where I can just go take the player that I want to start for the team immediately, without worrying about what happens next.

Round 1: Angel City takes Megan Oyster (Houston Dash) 

Haley: Nice. I, as San Diego, with the No. 2 pick — I look at my roster and it’s slowly coming together, but I think midfield is the biggest area of need. I am taking the playing rights to Emily van Egmond. I do think she’ll come back to the U.S. Obviously, she is on loan in Australia right now, but I think we see Emily, in one way or another, in a San Diego jersey.

Round 1: San Diego takes Emily van Egmond (Orlando Pride) 

Claire: Emily van Egmond also has very beachy vibes.

Haley: And it’s easier to get to Australia from the West Coast. I mean, that’s a real factor.

Claire: With the third pick in the expansion draft, I’m going to take Anna Heilferty of the Washington Spirit. She’s technically a midfielder. It’s a bit unfair to designate her that because she also played outside back for the Spirit this year. I like her because she’s versatile. Not knowing exactly where everyone’s going to fit on the pitch, but knowing that I, as Angel City, need some outside defenders and a lot of midfield depth, I like Heilferty. She’s young. She’s coachable. She stepped into a tough position with the Spirit. She had to come in due to some injuries for some of their starters this year, so she’s tested. She knows what it’s like to be in a winning environment. I like that I can put her in a couple of different places on the field. Technically, a Washington Spirit midfielder, but I could also use her at outside back. I like that about her.

Round 2: Angel City takes Anna Heilferty (Washington Spirit) 

Haley: Very nice. I couldn’t even pick from the Spirit, so I feel no personal threat. I’m turning my attention to the Reign. Even though Megan Rapinoe is sitting there being dangled in front of me, I’m not picking her up. I know we’ve got Alex Morgan coming over.

I was torn a bit here, but I am taking Sam Hiatt, defender from OL Reign. I’m looking for somebody young here. I’m looking for somebody to develop. We know we’ve got Abby Dahlkemper. I honestly went back and forth. My rotating list of names were Sam, Madison Hammond and Celia. I ultimately settled on Sam.

Round 2: San Diego takes Sam Hiatt (OL Reign) 

Claire: You are killing me positionally, but that’s how this was always going to go.

Haley: Who would’ve you taken?

Claire: I was going to take Madison Hammond if I could have.

Haley: I went back and forth a lot, honestly. They’re similar players.

Claire: The only thing that tipped Hammond over Hiatt for me is that Hammond is another player who can play out wide or centrally.

Haley: Sam Hiatt is also a Seattle kid, which works against me as well.

Claire: I think she’d go to San Diego. All right, since I cannot take a midfielder from Orlando and, I’m going to be honest, I am not sure I see anybody in the defense that I like or that I want to uproot, I’m going to do a bit of a fun flyer out of Orlando.

I’m going to pick up Abi Kim, who is one of their young forwards. She got minutes at the end of a number of games for Orlando. Really good super sub. She runs at defenders. She’s very energetic. She’s coachable. It’s going to be a molding opportunity, but I think with the other forwards that I have, learning from someone like Christen Press is the best you can possibly do. With the support Angel City can give, I think that she’ll develop.

Round 3: Angel City takes Abi Kim (Orlando Pride) 

Haley: That’s a good one. I wanted to throw a curveball, where the Thorns haven’t announced a goalkeeper coach yet. Maybe San Diego would rock the boat and take Nadine Angerer from Portland. It feels like something that would never happen, but the only league in the world where that might actually happen would be here.

But for my actual pick, I’m going to go to Houston. You took a Houston defender first. I was looking pretty hard at Chappy [Allysha Chapman]. Obviously, I cannot take her now. I’m a bit torn on this, but I think you want to keep bringing in a mix of young players and experience. The person on that roster I find most interesting right now is Sophie Schmidt. I’m going to take Sophie.

Round 3: San Diego takes Sophie Schmidt (Houston Dash) 

Again, would she go? I have no idea. Is she happy? Would she go somewhere else? Where is she in her career? I have no idea on any of that, but, in terms of knowing how important it is to have a strong midfield, that’s the area of the field that I’m always going to err on the side of experience and go for a few older players. I’m going to pick Sophie Schmidt. That’s a toss-up, but that’s my pick.

Claire: Nice. I think I have come to the end of my picks. I have one more from the Reign, and then I am done. I am going to take my $150,000 [for not taking a U.S. allocated player] very gladly. With allocation being phased out, there’s limited value to that anyway. 

And since I cannot take a defender from the Reign, I am going to pick up Dani Weatherholt simply because we have Julie Ertz, which is great, but we also know that Julie Ertz is coming back from injury. She is constantly out for international duty. She’s a great player who will be good for us when she is playing, but she’s not going to be there all the time.

Round 4: Angel City takes Dani Weatherholt (OL Reign) 

Dani Weatherholt is a tried-and-true, tested number six. Thinking positionally, you need to have a couple of players who can fill that role because, if you don’t have anybody there, then your center backs are going to hate you. I’m trying to look out for my Chicago-land duo of Megan Oyster and Sarah Gorden.

Haley: I’ve got Louisville left on the clock. This is probably one of the most interesting unprotected lists, in my opinion. You have the playing rights to Tobin [Heath]. You know Press is going to L.A. Would they end up getting both? Who knows? You already have so many national team-status players heading to those places. Do you pick up those rights and hold onto them? Do you take your money? Another person on that list who’s obviously super, super interesting is Savannah McCaskill up top. You know you need somebody to serve the ball into Alex. You know you need somebody who’s going to sit back there, be a workhorse. It seems like each year, Savannah gets a little bit closer to reaching that potential I think everybody thinks she has. I’m going to take Savannah McCaskill.

Round 4: San Diego takes Savannah McCaskill (Racing Louisville) 

She’s still really young, still got a lot of room to grow, a lot of upside. I’ll take my money for the players. And then, maybe you look at signing a player like Tobin somewhere down the line.

JWS Staff: Angel City is out of picks. Rumors are that Portland has protected its “core” from San Diego with a handshake deal. For the sake of this experiment, we’re going to have San Diego pick a Thorns player. Up to you, Haley, to say who is a “core” Portland player and who isn’t. 

Haley: I like Marissa Everett. Again, another young player. She’s had more experience than I think people expected on that Portland roster. At the same time, with the players that they do have, she is probably going to get lost in the shuffle at some point. So if I’m not allowed to take the core, Marissa Everett, under the assumption that she is not considered to be core, would probably be my pick there.

Round 5: San Diego takes Marissa Everett (Portland Thorns)

JWS Staff: There was a lot of hedging in the initial Equalizer report. It also suggested there could be an agreement in place where San Diego declined to select any Thorns player as part of the handshake deal.

Claire: Well, the thing about that report is it doesn’t make sense in that it’s a deal for two players for money. And for me, I’m Angel City, but if I were San Diego, I want to be a little bit like, “Well, what if we just took one player for free through the draft rather than give Portland money back for two?” It just seems like a deal that should have gotten done before the deadline. And because it didn’t, I’m not sure this makes sense anymore. We’ll see.

JWS Staff: Before we wrap, looking at these clubs’ rosters, with both those players who are confirmed and those we’ve picked today, how do you think they’ll do on the field next year?

Claire: I think both teams are going to have really cool starting elevens. And I think that’s pretty true to expansion form — if they have to go to their bench significantly, I think they might have trouble. You look at Angel City and this spine where you’ve got Press up top and then you’ve got Julie Ertz and then you’ve got Sarah Gordon and Simone Charley. You have these players and you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of really cool, dynamic players.”

But with the possibility that those players aren’t going to be available all of the time, or if the injury bug hits, then I think that that’s where they’re going to struggle. In my experience covering NWSL, I do think depth wins a lot, especially by the end of the regular season. I will say this, though: If Angel City and San Diego do well enough to be in playoff positions at the end of the year, they are some of the teams that I would want to play the least. Their starting elevens are going to be very talented.

Haley: Right now, the Angel City roster looks a little bit flashier, even with San Diego’s Alex Morgan signing. That doesn’t always equal success. I think we’ve seen that time and time again. And when I really dig into both teams, I see some of the players that San Diego has picked up — the Katie Johnsons, the Mackenzy Doniaks, and just some of these proven league players — who, more often than not, kind of do end up being depth. The starting eleven might not have as much firepower as Angel City, but I do think they’re going to have that depth. And for that reason, I think they might have a better chance of going the distance.

With L.A., you’re putting so much money into your starting eleven, you’re only a game or two from throwing some poor college kids into the fire when they aren’t ready for it.

Claire: I will say, though, that I think both teams are not just targeting players they like. There’s some positional awareness from both.

Louisville is a really good example of a team that had some nice pieces, especially in the attack, but they had no defensive midfield and that left their back line super exposed and so they would just give up goals all the time. It feels like we’re evolving, because it used to be that expansion teams would come in and get punked with other teams being like, “Here, take this player that you think is really cool, but we know that they can’t play a full 90 and they’re also a turnover machine.”

We’re seeing, I think, a fair amount of awareness coming in regarding positionally and true value. I think Angel City and San Diego have both picked up players that are starting level, even if for whatever reason some of them haven’t been starters.

I’m excited for these California teams. I think they are going to get one or two major wins and people are going to have to be like, “Oh, we have to take this seriously now. This is real.”

Haley: Totally agree. They’re destinations. Players want to go there. Plus, you’ve got five head coaches who have gotten fired this year. You have a lot of instability, a lot of people wanting to be in these new, fresh environments after all the things they’ve gone through over the past couple years. These are places that players genuinely want to be. And I think they’re going to go.

Claire: I do think that California is a pull. Not for everybody, but for a lot of players, especially players who are from there because that’s a hotbed of the youth scene. A lot of players also went to college in California. 

The other element though, too, is this need for a fresh start, where you have players who wouldn’t necessarily say, “That club was terrible,” but they’ve just gone through a lot over the last couple of years and they need something new. And it doesn’t get newer than a brand new California team. When you have all these established teams bringing in new coaches, for players, it’s like, “Well, I’m starting over anyway, so why not start over somewhere new and exciting?”