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Most intriguing NWSL free agents still testing the waters

North Carolina Courage midfielder Debinha helped her team with a hat trick this weekend. (Jaylynn Nash/USA TODAY Sports)

After the 2022 NWSL season, free agents flooded the transfer market, as all six-year veterans became unrestricted in their ability to pursue new deals with teams. While the process will pay dividends for years to come, finalized deals have been slow to arrive as teams look toward the upcoming college draft and begin to put their rosters together.

A number of top veteran free agents re-signed with their current clubs, such as Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, Yuki Nagasato and Ifeoma Onumonu. Those moves were undeniably influenced by free agency, but not quite the splash announcements fans might have been expecting.

Gotham FC has been the only team so far to get deals with new players over the line, though their announcement of USWNT national Kelley O’Hara’s signing might have been slightly premature. They officially signed goalkeeper Abby Smith to shore up the position after the retirement of Ashlyn Harris. They also improved their defense with the signing of Kansas City standout Kristen Edmonds on Thursday.

Most teams are likely still negotiating with the free agents they had on their rosters in 2022 or are sitting back to evaluate the brand-new free-agency market. O’Hara’s announcement provided a welcome spark to the NWSL offseason, but other clubs have been slow to follow suit.

There is a wealth of talent still testing the waters, with a few notable names sticking out as players head toward the new year without deals in place.

Debinha, North Carolina Courage

It seems likely that Debinha will either come to contract terms with North Carolina or leave the NWSL entirely before moving to a different team in the league. Debinha has superstar talent as one of the best attacking midfielders in the world. Even with greater cap space and extended reserves of allocation money, there are few teams that can even afford to pursue the 31-year-old without radically shaking up the rosters they’ve already built. It would be amazing to see a home-run swing from another NWSL contender, but if Debinha wants to make a big money move, she might have to leave the U.S.

Teams that should be interested: All of them. Dark horse: Orlando (combined with re-signing Marta, who similarly might be looking outside the NWSL for her next adventure)

Morgan Gautrat, Chicago Red Stars

Gautrat has already told Chicago she won’t be returning in 2023, and she’ll have a number of teams interested in her services. NWSL teams aren’t always known for their midfield hold-up play, and a number of clubs could use a healthy Gautrat as a tempo-setter. The two-time World Champion was arguably Chicago’s most important player as the club made a run to the 2021 NWSL Championship, maintaining possession and influencing play off the ball when the Red Stars held their defensive shape. If teams are looking for a player who excels with and without the ball, Gautrat would be a savvy pick-up. The question mark might simply be the 29-year-old’s injury history, though she looked as good as ever when she returned to the field late in 2022.

Teams that should be interested: San Diego, Angel City, Gotham

Desiree Scott played an integral role in Kansas City's run to the 2021 NWSL championship game. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Desiree Scott, Kansas City Current

“She better be signing a new [contract],” Kansas City midfielder Lo’eau Labonta said of teammate Scott after the 2022 NWSL Championship. The Current’s unlikely run to the final showcased just how many teams could use a player like the Canadian international. She’s an imposing defensive midfield presence and a proven locker-room leader who hasn’t seemed to miss a step in the 12th year of her professional career. Scott has been a part of the original FC Kansas City roster since 2013, and while the Current are poised for one of the best set-ups in the league, Scott might be interested in testing the waters. Kansas City could also view Alex Loera as her successor.

Teams that should be interested: Gotham, San Diego, Kansas City

Megan Rapinoe, OL Reign

Rapinoe has said she wants to stay in Seattle, and longtime coach Laura Harvey seems amenable to the idea, so the hold-up for the Reign might simply be coming to contract terms with one of the biggest stars in the sport. Rapinoe consistently had a place on the USWNT roster in 2022, with next year’s World Cup on the horizon, and she played a significant role in OL Reign’s surge to the NWSL Shield. The Reign, though, have a number of big stars on their roster, and figuring out a salary-optimizing one- or two-year deal might take some time.

Teams that should be interested: OL Reign — in getting the deal done

Tobin Heath, OL Reign

With Heath rehabbing from offseason surgery after another year riddled with injuries, the question surrounding her NWSL future has less to do with which teams would like to have a player of her experience and talent level, and more with what terms they’d be willing to offer her. Heath signed a one-year deal with the Reign upon her return to the league in 2022, and she’ll likely be looking at similar offers for 2023. Still, she remains one of the biggest names in women’s soccer, and teams might be waiting to see how the rest of free agency shakes out before putting together an offer that matches her stature.

Teams that should be interested: Angel City, San Diego, Orlando, Chicago

Katie Johnson, San Diego Wave

Katie Johnson has been something of an NWSL journeywoman in her career, playing for Seattle, Sky Blue, Chicago and most recently San Diego, who released her to pursue free agency. She can play both as an attacker and behind the front line, and she has a knack for connectivity that fits either a false No. 9 or No. 10 role. She scored a rocket for Chicago in the 2021 semifinals and was effective for San Diego before going down with an injury. She’s probably less effective off the bench than when given time to ease into a match, but she quietly provides value when on the pitch.

Teams that should be interested: Houston, Orlando, Louisville

Julie Ertz has not played in an NWSL game since May 2021. (Stephen Brashear/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Julie Ertz, Angel City

There still hasn’t been much information regarding Ertz’s interest in returning to the NWSL in 2023 (though she posted her most soccer-related piece of content in months this week), but USWNT January camp is rapidly approaching and could provide a tip in either direction. What messaging Ertz gets from the U.S. as the team prepares for the 2023 World Cup might convince her to make her way back, at which point she’ll have her pick of teams willing to make an offer to add her to their midfield.

Teams that should be interested: Angel City, Chicago, San Diego, Kansas City, Gotham

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.