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.

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.

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

Most of the NWSL community has been waiting for the start of the 2022 season since the Washington Spirit walked away with the 2021 trophy on Nov. 20. For San Diego Wave FC forward Kelsey Turnbow, the countdown began last January when the Chicago Red Stars selected her No. 18 overall in the 2021 college draft.

Instead of playing for the Red Stars last year, Turnbow opted to return to Santa Clara for the spring 2021 season, rescheduled from 2020, and stay with the team last fall for her final NCAA season.

Toward the very end of that season, Turnbow learned she wouldn’t suit up for the Red Stars after all. The day before her last game with the Broncos, a shootout loss to BYU in the College Cup semifinals, Chicago traded her rights to San Diego, along with those of Katie Johnson and Makenzy Doniak, in exchange for immunity in the 2022 expansion draft and allocation money.

At that point, Turnbow was ready. The 23-year-old had two goals she wanted to reach before turning pro: earn her MBA and win a national championship. By the end of her college career, she had both. And for good measure, she finished the 2021 fall season as a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist, First Team All-West Region honoree, All-WCC for the fifth time and a First Team All-American.

“It just felt right for me to stay another year,” the former Broncos captain told Just Women’s Sports. “I am a goal-setter and I like to challenge myself and I felt like I hadn’t done what I came there to do yet,  that was really motivating. … I just felt like I wanted to be a part of something special for as long as I could, and that year gave me that.”

Santa Clara won the 2020 NCAA title in a shootout against No. 1 Florida State last May, thanks Turnbow’s equalizer in the final seven minutes of regulation that sent the match to overtime. The attacker also converted her penalty kick to seal the upset victory.

“To win a national championship with my best friends, I will never forget that moment and I will always cherish the friendships I’ve made with those girls,” she said. “Those are my friends for life.”

The thought of capping her college career on the high note of a national championship was tempting, but with an MBA to complete and surrounded by friends she’d become even closer to after the title-winning season, Turnbow made the natural decision to stay for the fall.

The lessons she picked up during her last year at Santa Clara have served her in well in her first NWSL training camp. With San Diego, Turnbow has focused on contributing to a strong team culture, checking in on her teammates and picking them up when they’re down.

“Literally my teammates are my family and I’ve always considered them as such,” she said. “So however I can contribute to make this environment a winning culture and a really healthy environment for people to grow, I want to do that.”

In their first month and a half as a team, the Wave have created a culture built on authenticity, transparency and vulnerability, values that resonate deeply with Turnbow.

“It’s an environment where I feel like I can be myself and I can thrive and they expect so much out of me,” she said. “I love goal-setting and I like challenging myself, and I feel like this is a place where I can do that and I can really grow and be my best self both on and off the field.”

A naturally social person, Turnbow lived in a house with 13 teammates for one year at Santa Clara. So far with the Wave, she has found her relationships to be fulfilling.

Turnbow and roommate Naomi Girma, the Wave’s first overall pick in the 2022 college draft, live in the same apartment building as other San Diego teammates. They spend much of their downtime sitting by the pool of the complex or relaxing at the beach. Turnbow has enjoyed her conversations with the coaches and veterans about both soccer and life experiences.

“I just feel like they hand-picked such a great group of people and I could not be more blessed to have this experience because the people matter,” Turnbow said. “You can be somewhere so cool in the world, but if you’re not with the right people, it’s not going to be as memorable. And I just feel so grateful that the people here are awesome. It’s really contributing to my growth here.”

The team-building efforts have made preseason pass by in a flash, as Turnbow described it, but they’ve also set the Wave up to come out strong in their Challenge Cup opener Saturday against Angel City FC.

“I’ve just been thinking about this game — like, it’s my very first professional game — for so long,” she said. “To finally be here, it’s so surreal, it’s exciting, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking in all the best ways. But I feel blessed to be in this position, to where I have the opportunity to play with so many incredible players. To just step on the pitch as a professional for the first time, it’s going to be really special day.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.