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NWSL expansion draft: Best players for Bay FC and Utah Royals

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OL Reign forward Elyse Bennett is available in the NWSL expansion draft. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL is hosting its newest iteration of a two-team expansion draft at 7 p.m. ET Friday, as Bay FC and the revamped Utah Royals look to add to their growing rosters in preparation for their inaugural seasons in 2024.

Expansion drafts are unpopular affairs, both among the players bearing the brunt of the process’s uncertainty and among existing clubs not eager to part with the talent they’ve developed. So it’s not shocking then that this year’s draft has been somewhat defanged, with exemptions for free agents and U18 players and many trades for draft protection.

To summarize, only OL Reign and the Chicago Red Stars made no deals for at least partial protection prior to Tuesday’s transaction freeze, but a flurry of activity saw seven clubs bow out of the proces entirely. The San Diego Wave, Racing Louisville and North Carolina Courage all have protection from one of the two expansion sides, though each could still lose two players in the draft.

As a result, just five protection lists were released to the public, with a few with limitations on who can be selected. (Full rules can be found here.)

Ahead of expansion draft, here are a few players that stand out as possible targets for Bay FC and the Royals, both in fit and in upside:

Bay FC: Kelsey Turnbow, San Diego Wave

Turnbow has college ties to the Bay Area, as she won an NCAA title in 2021 with the Santa Clara Broncos. Coming into the NWSL as a proven goalscorer at the collegiate level, Turnbow has featured for the Wave as both a forward and as more of a playmaker in a deep-lying attacking role. But Turnbow played most of her soccer for the Wave in 2022, and she saw her minutes dwindle significantly in 2023 as other players shined in the attack. If she is looking for a fresh start, Bay FC might be a good landing spot.

Utah Royals: Sarah Griffith, Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars leaving Griffith unprotected is somewhat puzzling considering her steady integration into the team as a rookie in 2022. But her inability to find the pitch in the latter stages of 2023 could indicate that she’s ready for a new challenge. Griffith is a versatile attacking player who played in a box midfield for the Red Stars in 2022 and even occasionally filled in at wingback. With the Royals looking for midfield options to complement Mikayla Cluff, Griffith could be a great addition.

Bay FC: Brianna Pinto, North Carolina Courage

Pinto has the tools to be a very consistent NWSL midfielder despite finding herself on the outside looking in during the second half of North Carolina’s 2023 season. The 23-year-old is a player that can aid a midfield in hold-up, possession-style football, as well as look for the final ball to break open a defense. She also isn’t afraid to turn towards goal herself, playing forward at times in college at North Carolina.

Utah Royals: Elyse Bennett, OL Reign

If Bennett is selected in the expansion draft, she’ll be moving to her third club in as many years in the league, which is more of a reflection that she’s a talent that deserves a space to get consistent playing time. Bennett was used as a game changer first in Kansas City as a rookie and then again in Seattle in 2023, and she has a tenacity in front of goal that not many young players share. Utah could use Bennett as a wide player or as a focal point at center-forward, where she could link up with wingers like Michele Vasconcelos to create a potent attack.

Bay FC: Sam Hiatt, OL Reign

Bay FC already have one piece to their center-back pairing, acquiring Emily Menges from Portland in exchange for draft protection for the Thorns. A good partner for Menges could be Hiatt, who started many matches for the Reign during their Shield-winning campaign in 2022 but moved to the bench after the club brought in Lauren Barnes as a center-back in the second half of 2023. A Stanford graduate, Hiatt has college ties to the area, and she has experience putting together staunch performances in the central defense.

Utah Royals: Paige Monaghan, Racing Louisville

Monaghan has showcased an impressive amount of versatility with both Gotham FC and then Racing Louisville, playing primarily as a winger but also showing the willingness to slot in at outside back. A steady league veteran, the 27-year-old can play wide on all three positional lines competently, with experience and a work ethic that is obvious on both sides of the ball. With the inevitable positional imbalances that can take shape for a first-year expansion team, a player with her qualities could be invaluable.

Bay FC: Kyra Carusa, San Diego Wave

Carusa has been something of a revelation since signing with San Diego in August 2023. She was used as both a starter and as a reserve off the bench throughout the second half of the Wave’s Shield-winning season. Carusa can play centrally and would interplay well with wingers such as already-signed Scarlett Camberos in the Bay FC attack. The only possible question mark for Carusa would be her desire to leave her hometown of San Diego and her possible desire to return to play in England.

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Racing Louisville forward Thembi Kgatlana's availability in the NWSL expansion draft is surprising. (EM Dash/USA TODAY Sports)

Utah Royals: Thembi Kgatlana, Racing Louisville

Kgatlana being available for selection in this draft is so surprising that it makes me wonder if she has other plans than the NWSL for 2024. But the forward’s talent upside is so high it’s impossible to leave her off this list even if she isn’t ultimately destined for Utah. The 27-year-old is an excellent goalscorer both at the domestic and international level, with a willingness to run long lengths of the pitch for service if necessary. She can fool any defender, and with the right midfield behind her, she could be a consistent scoring threat for years to come.

Bay FC: Amanda Kowalski, Chicago Red Stars

Kowalski is another strong contender for defensive depth, with experience playing both at outside back and in a three-back system. She was signed by the Red Stars in 2022 after the team lost Tierna Davidson to an ACL tear and stepped in admirably while growing into her new role as the season progressed. Depending on the system that Bay FC wants to run, Kowalski could be a player who pushes the starters in front of her or slots into multiple roles in a pinch.

Bay FC: Olivia Wingate, North Carolina Courage

What Bay FC could find in Wingate is a young player that has shown flashes of NWSL-level brilliance in one year as a professional. The 23-year-old got the bulk of her minutes in North Carolina in the middle of the 2023 season, showing an ability to create chances for both herself and her teammates. If Bay FC took a swing at a player without as much experience, what they could get in return is an attacker that can grow with the organization — and who already looks well on her way.

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Could North Carolina Courage forward Olivia Wingate, center, be on the move? (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)