The first round of the NWSL College Draft can serve as a tipping point in the league. Look no further than the Washington Spirit, who relied on two top-10 picks in the 2021 draft to win the NWSL title this past season. On the flip side, as we saw in the weeks leading up to this year’s draft, teams can use first-round picks as leverage to build out their rosters with more experienced talent.
The success of the first 12 players selected in the NWSL draft on Saturday won’t be realized until next year and beyond. That doesn’t mean we can’t give our immediate evaluations of the picks and how they fit with their new teams.
Below, we hand out grades for each of the 12 picks in the first round of the 2022 NWSL Draft.
Naomi Girma, D/M, Stanford – B+
The center back is a quality prospect who brings plenty of experience to the expansion team, between winning a national championship at Stanford and being named the 2020 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year. It will be interesting to see if San Diego tries Girma as a defensive midfielder since building out the spine was certainly a team need heading into the draft. It’s safe to assume the Wave will look to stock their midfield in other ways. Still, going with Girma over Howell with the No. 1 pick was a bit of a surprise.
Jaelin Howell, M, Florida State – A
From both a team fit and player quality perspective, once Howell fell to Racing Louisville here, selecting her was a no-brainer. Howell adds steel to the second-year club’s midfield and can be a high-impact player if her development continues in a positive direction.
Emily Gray, M, Virginia Tech – A
Outside of the top two, how teams drafted was always going to be a bit of a mystery. The Courage are going through a bit of a rebuild and have two top picks to try to kick-start the next era. Gray thrived on a solid Virginia Tech team and can hit the ground running in North Carolina.
Savannah DeMelo, M, USC – B
The attacking midfielder played all over the field in her final season, moving between forward, the wing and the No. 10 role. There’s little doubt about the soccer quality DeMelo brings from a passing and finishing perspective. The question is how she will fit into a league that often emphasizes the physical side of the game. If she can make the necessary adjustments to the NWSL’s speed of play and figure out ways to beat faster defenders, DeMelo should at least get minutes for Louisville this year as she continues to develop.
Mia Fishel, F, UCLA – A+
Fishel and former UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell get a reunion in Central Florida. Fishel has arguably the highest upside in the draft pool, leaving school early to start her professional career. The familiarity between the two should help Fishel make a smooth transition to the next level. She’s a young player the Pride can build around as they launch a rebuild in 2022.
There's no feeling like it ✨📹: @diana0rdonez pic.twitter.com/T4rv0foTQa— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) December 18, 2021
There's no feeling like it ✨📹: @diana0rdonez pic.twitter.com/T4rv0foTQa
Diana Ordoñez, F, Virginia – B+
Pairing Gray and Ordoñez within the first six picks is tidy work from the Courage. Ordoñez needs teammates around her to maximize her potential, as she’s more effective getting on the end of chances in the penalty area rather than creating them for herself. She’ll have that in the form of Lynn Williams out wide and Gray pulling the strings a bit deeper, among others.
Elyse Bennett, F, Washington State – B-
There’s no doubt that athletic forwards have a successful track record of making the jump from college to the NWSL. Bennett has that in spades, and if she can continue to improve her efficiency and be more consistent in front of goal, the rest should fall into place for Kansas City.
Zsani Kajan, F, St. John’s – C
International players have plenty to offer in the NWSL, though evaluating them in the context of the draft is always difficult. Kajan’s goal-scoring record in the Big East speaks for itself: The Hungarian scored 17 goals in 23 games during her final season this fall. It was all but certain she would get drafted on Saturday, but it feels like the Reign reached a little bit to draft her here. Of course, Rachel Daly, an English standout who also played at St. John’s, has proven her worth in the NWSL, and Kajan has the potential to follow in her footsteps.
Draft reactions = priceless. 🤩#LopesInThePros x @sandiegowavefc pic.twitter.com/DohqoVblQh— GCU Women's Soccer (@GCU_WSoccer) December 18, 2021
Draft reactions = priceless. 🤩#LopesInThePros x @sandiegowavefc pic.twitter.com/DohqoVblQh
Marleen Schimmer, M/F, Grand Canyon – B-
Before Schimmer was outclassing opponents in the Western Athletic Conference, the German attacker played two seasons at Arizona State. That past experience likely played a role in San Diego scooping her up here, though there’s always the risk that she elects to turn pro back home. Schimmer is a wide attacker who can also play through the middle, and her ability to show she’s worth an international roster spot will determine the success of this pick.
Caitlin Cosme, D, Duke – B
The Pride traded up to this spot to grab Cosme, a 5-foot-5 central defender with plenty of promise in the back. Still, her size is a concern and the context of the move is an interesting one: While other players also came over in the package deal, Orlando traded away Phoebe McClernon, another center back who played well at times. Of course, there is a new regime in charge in Orlando, and adding a first-round talent is a positive development for a rebuilding club.
Julie Doyle, F, Santa Clara – A
One of a handful of players on the list who didn’t play college soccer in the fall, Doyle showed plenty of potential in the spring season when she won a national title with Santa Clara. A wide attacker who can combine well through the middle or take defenders on out on the flanks, Doyle adds to Orlando’s depth as another young player with upside. If anything, the time she spent training in England could mean she’s more prepared to contribute right away.
Kaitlin Fregulia, D, Long Beach State – B-
Fregulia ended her decorated career at Long Beach State as a two-time Big West Defensive Player of the Year, and she has the size, quality and ability to make an impact as a center back. It was still a curious pick for the Courage since they could have gone in a number of other directions that might have made more sense from a team-building perspective, such as taking South Florida forward Sydny Nasello. The Courage, however, can give Fregulia the time to develop and not press her into minutes right away, which could help ease her transition into the NWSL.
Travis Clark is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering college soccer and the NWSL Draft. He is also the Director of Content at Top Drawer Soccer. Follow him on Twitter @travismclark.