The free agency signing period for the 2024 NWSL season has officially begun, with both restricted and unrestricted free agents now able to sign contracts with clubs of their choosing. Unrestricted free agents can sign with new teams immediately, while restricted free agents can also receive matching qualifying offers from their current clubs.
As in last year’s inaugural free agency, the players with the most freedom are established league veterans, and therefore some of the most valuable players in the league. Signings might start slowly due to free agents being exempt from the upcoming two-team expansion draft, but it’s reasonable to expect another league shake-up before the offseason is over.
Here are a few of the best-known free agents in this year’s class, as well as the journey that got them here and what they might do next.
After winning an NWSL Championship with the Portland Thorns in 2022, Crystal Dunn announced right as this year’s offseason began that she’ll be moving on to another squad. She joked during the Skills Challenge at 2023 Championship weekend that she was “looking for a job,” and according to her Instagram, she has already moved out of the Pacific Northwest.
Dunn’s decision to tell the public about her plans right away suggests she might be ahead of the game in picking her next destination, whether it be in the NWSL or abroad. Dunn has already played for the Washington Spirit and the North Carolina Courage in her career, and she has family ties on the East Coast. It seems feasible she could choose to join Gotham’s championship-winning midfield, or even listen to an offer from the Orlando Pride, who have an excess amount of allocation money at their disposal.
Rose Lavelle has already taken a circuitous route to her first-ever free agency period. She was drafted into the NWSL by the Boston Breakers and moved to the Washington Spirit after her former club folded. She then was traded to OL Reign in 2020 while playing for Manchester City in England, a move she said came as a surprise to her at the time.
Despite the circumstances that landed Lavelle in Seattle, she’s thrived in her time there. The Reign have a consistent midfield that other clubs envy, and when healthy, Lavelle has had the freedom to pull the strings as the team’s midfield maestro under manager Laura Harvey. Her fit with the team was on full display during the Reign’s 2023 NWSL Championship loss, which might encourage the 28-year-old to extend her contract with the club. But Lavelle isn’t afraid to take leaps in her career, and finding a new home abroad or closer to the region of her NWSL beginnings wouldn’t shock anyone.
There are a number of reasons to believe that USWNT superstar Mallory Swanson might be open to re-signing with the Chicago Red Stars. Swanson’s husband Dansby is locked into a multi-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, and Swanson herself has flourished upon joining the Red Stars in 2021. Her play in Chicago catapulted her back into the U.S. women’s national team conversation, and she’s been working with their trainers in her slow journey back to the pitch after a patella tendon injury.
But the Red Stars have extensive roster work to do after a last-place finish in 2023, and they don’t currently have a general manager or head coach to make promises to top players who might be worried about the club’s formerly tenuous environment. New ownership appears to be steering the team back on track, but players of Swanson’s caliber will likely have to be reassured that the Red Stars will be contending for the postseason again in the future.
Emily Sonnett might be one of the most intriguing free agent prospects in this year’s class. After being drafted by the Portland Thorns in 2016, Sonnett won an NWSL Championship as a center-back with the Washington Spirit in 2021 following a trade from the Orlando Pride (for whom she never actually suited up). Then in 2023, new Spirit manager Mark Parsons abruptly traded Sonnett to OL Reign on NWSL draft day, a move that took the 29-year-old by surprise.
Since joining Seattle, Sonnett has reinvented herself as a player, becoming a steady presence in the defensive midfield, first for the Reign and then on the international stage with the USWNT. Now a free agent, she could slot into any team’s defense or midfield and command space with confidence. As a player who has had to abide by trades in the past, she’s likely looking forward to making her own decision, whether that means staying with the Reign or landing somewhere entirely new.
While she is a restricted free agent, María Sánchez is the type of player any NWSL club could shape an attack around. She was originally drafted into the league by the Chicago Red Stars, but hit her stride in Liga MX Femenil, playing for Chivas and then UANL Tigres. She returned to the NWSL with the Houston Dash, first on loan and then full-time at the beginning of the 2022 season. Sánchez is a talented winger, with quality on the ball and the ability to make defenders miss and send solid crosses into teammates in the box.
Despite the talent they’ve compiled, the Dash have struggled under numerous managers to convert their style of play into a compelling attacking structure. Houston scored the fewest goals in 2023, nine fewer than the next-worst attack, even after putting together a high-flying frontline that included Diana Ordoñez and Nichelle Prince. With the Dash again looking for a permanent coach to put all the pieces together, Sánchez might be convinced to extend her time in Texas to see out the roster’s original vision. But it also wouldn’t be surprising if the Mexico national team player has her eye on a club that’s already scoring goals to optimize her potential.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.