The NWSL has announced its expansion draft for Bay FC and Utah Royals FC, but there appears to be an important loophole: unsigned free agents aren’t available for selection.

The 12-round draft, which will be held at 7 p.m. ET Friday, Dec. 15, features rules similar to past expansion drafts, with teams permitted to protect nine players. Players with a “no trade” clause are required to be protected by their club — and if one of the expansion teams selects a player from a team’s roster, that team is allowed to protect one additional player.

With free agents exempt from the draft, though, teams could wait to sign players until after Dec. 15. Top unrestricted free agents include Rose Lavelle of OL Reign, Crystal Dunn of the Portland Thorns and Sarah Gorden of Angel City FC. By waiting to sign a new contract, their teams would not have to protect them.

Several teams have a large number of free agents. The Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash have 10 free agents each, while Gotham FC has eight, as do the Portland Thorns and Angel City FC.

There are 75 total players eligible for free agency this offseason.

Top unrestricted free agents include:

  • Tierna Davidson, Chicago Red Stars
  • Crystal Dunn, Portland Thorns
  • Sarah Gorden, Angel City FC
  • Casey Krueger, Chicago Red Stars
  • Savannah McCaskill, Angel City FC
  • Rose Lavelle, OL Reign
  • Emily Sonnett, OL Reign
  • Mallory Swanson, Chicago Red Stars

Top restricted free agents include:

  • Emina Ekic, Racing Louisville
  • Emily Fox, North Carolina Courage
  • Madison Hammond, Angel City FC

It’s difficult to imagine a single NWSL game between two expansion sides having more hype than the first-ever match between the San Diego Wave and Los Angeles’ Angel City FC last season.

But as Angel City midfielder Savannah McCaskill remembers it, the SoCal rivalry didn’t actually begin until their first game had been played. The first match in the organizations’ history — a Challenge Cup group stage game in March 2022 — felt a bit like preseason, with neither team yet settled into their current home stadiums.

“Going into it, it didn’t feel as much of a rivalry game,” McCaskill said. That is, until the result on the field had both teams walking away ready for round two.

Angel City thought they had the match won after McCaskill’s header found the back of the net in the 49th minute, the first goal in club history. But a late equalizer by Wave defender Kaleigh Riehl produced a 1-1 draw that felt to Angel City more like a loss.

“How that game unfolded, with us scoring first and then them getting the tying goal, they left us feeling like we really wanted to beat them,” McCaskill said.

The teams have now met five times in front of raucous crowds — San Diego has won three of those games, including the most recent two, while L.A. has earned one win and one draw. Angel City has a shot at redemption against their rivals on Saturday in San Diego, after falling at home in their first matchup this season, 2-0.

For McCaskill, the wins make all the difference. Growing up in South Carolina and staying in-state to play four years at the University of South Carolina, she hails from a region known for some of the most deep-seated rivalries in American sports.

“If you go to USC or you’re a South Carolina fan, you hate Clemson. I guess it’s in your DNA,” she said. “Didn’t matter if they were good that year, bad that year, didn’t matter. It was always a very heated rivalry game full of emotion, full of craziness, every single time we played them.”

After joining the NWSL in 2018, McCaskill had fewer chances to develop rivalry experiences. Drafted by the Boston Breakers — who then promptly folded — the 26-year-old played for Sky Blue (now Gotham) FC, the Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville before joining Angel City’s inaugural expansion roster.

McCaskill’s journey through the league before finding a home in L.A. allowed her to form a tight-knit yet widespread group of friends. Now, she’s used to facing former teammates on the other side of the pitch, which can make the intensity of a match a bit more personal.

“There’s something about beating your friends, it’s kind of fun,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know if that’s mean, but it’s kind of fun to be able to play against your friends and have that banter back and forth.”

While they take care of business on the field, Angel City’s players want to leave the naming of the SoCal derby up to the fans, who have quickly taken ownership of the rivalry. With regional proximity still an NWSL rarity, supporters take advantage of the quick trip out of town to show up in droves. Angel City is expecting hundreds of supporters to make the drive to San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday.

The fan support has never wavered, but Angel City has struggled on the pitch this season, managing only two wins in 11 regular season matches. The Wave have forged a different path so far, rising to the top of the NWSL standings after becoming the first expansion side to make the playoffs in their inaugural season in 2022.

“I think we have got to show up, we have to do the dirty work well, we have to compete, we have to want to get into tackles,” McCaskill said, describing a gritty ability to close out games that became a team ethos in 2022 but has eluded Angel City in recent weeks.

The squad has no choice but to look at the derby as a step toward turning their season around. But they also understand what getting a win over a close rival would mean to Angel City’s fans.

“They really build on the huge rivalry piece and bring so much emotion and honor to us as players,” McCaskill said. “Why we’re competing and why the game really means so much is because it means so much to our supporters and the city of Los Angeles.”

McCaskill credits the passion of the SoCal rivalry to the fans. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL veteran says putting up a fight will go a long way toward achieving the ultimate goal, regardless of the result. And for McCaskill personally, winning would erase a piece of recent history that still haunts her.

“It’s no secret, I missed my (penalty) the last time we were down there this last year,” she said, referring to goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan’s diving save on her 74th-minute penalty kick in a 1-0 loss last September. “So, I would love to be able to score in that stadium and get that monkey off my back.”

Like any good playmaker, McCaskill can remember both the goals scored and the chances missed. In a match of this magnitude, she’s hoping for more memories that will help build a passionate rivalry for years to come.

“I’m all for a goal that makes the crowd go crazy,” she said. “And even better, to take it a step further, if your team scores a goal and the other team’s supporters have to clap for you because it was that good — that’s a crazy moment.”

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

Angel City FC’s first season in the NWSL was a rousing success by almost every metric off the pitch. The team hosted sold-out crowds, sold sponsorships, connected with the community and more.

On the field, the results were slightly less conclusive, as a number of key players suffered injuries and the team’s plans hit bumps in the road. An expansion team taking some time to find its footing in its inaugural season is understandable, but the Los Angeles club will need to take steps forward on the pitch in 2023 to keep pace with the rest of the league.

2022 Review: Baby steps

Angel City made a handful of splashy moves prior to their inaugural season. The team swapped their first-round draft pick for USWNT superstar Christen Press and benefitted from smart deals and player wishes to compile what looked like a competitive starting XI.

The team’s best-laid plans never quite came to fruition, in part due to an influx of injuries. Angel City lost center-back Sarah Gorden for the year with an ACL tear as well as star striker Christen Press to an ACL tear in June. After trading for Orlando’s Sydney Leroux later in June, the forward’s availability was limited the rest of the season. Winger Simone Charley dealt with lingering Achilles issues in the latter half of the summer, and midfielder Julie Ertz took time away from the sport entirely after the club acquired her rights before the season.

Angel City’s availability issues made it difficult to gauge their roster construction. The team became a gritty unit of starters who withstood the ebbs and flows of possession to try to grind out results. Angel City’s depth was put under a microscope by necessity, and the toll at the end of the season showed as the expansion side faded to eighth after a season-ending loss to the Chicago Red Stars.

Christen Press has been slowly working her way back from an ACL injury suffered last season. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

Offseason moves: Betting on the future

After an inaugural season involving many factors outside the club’s control, Angel City took the two-pronged approach of running it back and planning for the future. The club traded for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NWSL draft, selecting local teenage talent Alyssa Thompson. Thompson will get significant minutes in her first year as a pro as Press and Leroux continue to work their way back from injuries.

The assets L.A. dealt to acquire Thompson, in addition to the assets used to pick up Press and others in 2022, left the club with little room for more moves. As a result, Angel City needs to rely on their current team taking steps forward in 2023. Canada international Vanessa Gilles remains on loan to Olympique Lyon, but Gorden has made a full recovery and appears ready to run the backline in 2023.

“We didn’t necessarily get where we were looking to in the first season but were able to establish a foundation and a training facility,” general manager Angela Hucles Mangano said at the beginning of preseason. “We are looking at how we’re rounding out our entire roster, for the immediate and long term. We really want to make sure that we can provide depth in different positions. That is where you see how those players can be additive.”

While Angel City eagerly awaits the returns of Press and Leroux, the club made no moves to shore up the frontline that will likely be commanded by Thompson and Charley. Former North Carolina outside back Merritt Mathias should walk into a defensive role if she’s available, and former San Diego Wave forward Katie Johnson can also connect the attack to the midfield with her connective passing.

Savannah McCaskill led Angel City with seven goals in 2022. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

2023 outlook: Patience for the payoff

It’s difficult to gauge how head coach Freya Coombe plans to manage Thompson’s high ceiling while also getting the most out of the rest of her squad. A preseason friendly against Club América showed both the strengths and the weaknesses in Angel City’s roster construction.

While Thompson showed off her electric speed and poise to score her debut goal, the team started defender Madison Hammond at defensive midfielder and center back Paige Nielsen at outside back. Angel City never quite addressed the positional needs in the offseason that would allow the club to control the pace of play without requiring as much off-the-ball defending to pick up points. Jun Endo and Savannah McCaskill’s playmaking will be the key toward unlocking opposing defenses, and reliability at the less flashy positions might be what Angel City needs more than a brand-new star.

Angel City could be one of the biggest boom-or-bust propositions in the NWSL. They have the on-the-ball quality and speed of play to put opponents on their heels, but they might find that living dangerously gets in their way during a punishing regular season.

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

NWSL expansion clubs Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC made their debuts in the Challenge Cup on Saturday, playing to a 1-1 draw at Titan Stadium.

Angel City came out firing at home, as Christen Press tested San Diego goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan early.

After Angel City’s near-miss, San Diego began to play their way into the game, creating solid chances in the opening 45 minutes.

After the half, Angel City broke the 0-0 deadlock, with Savannah McCaskill scoring the Los Angeles club’s first-ever goal. McCaskill found an opening in San Diego’s defense with a run into the box and headed in Ali Riley’s lofted cross for the 1-0 lead.

San Diego finally found the back of the net in the 81st minute when Kaleigh Riehl, who subbed in for Abby Dahlkemper at the half, tapped in a Wave corner kick for the club’s inaugural goal.

Each club returns to action on Saturday, with Angel City hosting OL Reign and San Diego playing the Portland Thorns at home.

Angel City FC continues to build outs its roster ahead of the 2022 season, acquiring Savannah McCaskill from Racing Louisville FC in exchange for the No. 6 overall pick in the Saturday’s College Draft and $25,000 in allocation money.

“We are delighted to welcome Savannah McCaskill to Angel City FC,” ACFC Sporting Director Eni Aluko said in a statement. “Savannah is a highly technical and versatile midfielder that has a unique ability to create opportunities for her team and unlock opposition defenses. Savannah had a strong season this past season and her experience being part of an expansion team will serve us well in our first season.”

McCaskill started 22 of the 23 games she appeared in for Racing Louisville in 2021, scoring one goal and adding three assists. Playing mostly in the attack, she recorded a 68 percent passing success rate and 31 key passes on the season.

Prior to her time in Louisville, McCaskill played in 18 games for the Chicago Red Stars and 26 games for Sky Blue FC, who selected her second overall in the 2018 NWSL Dispersal Draft after the Boston Breakers folded. Over those 44 games, she scored four goals. McCaskill, 25, also has six caps with the U.S. women’s national senior team.

In a separate deal on Friday, Angel City acquired goalkeeper Brittany Wilson from the Orlando Pride in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick. The Pride have been active this offseason as they rebuild for the 2022 season, sending goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defender Ali Krieger to NJ/NY Gotham FC and Alex Morgan to San Diego FC.

Friday’s trade leaves the Pride with a goalkeeping depth chart of Erin McLeod and Kaylie Collins, the club’s 34th overall pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft.

The NWSL trade wheel kept spinning ahead of the 2022 College Draft, with Racing Louisville FC acquiring North Carolina Courage forward Jessica McDonald on Friday in exchange for the No. 6 overall pick in Saturday’s draft.

The deal came on the heels of Racing Louisville sending forward Savannah McCaskill to Angel City FC in exchange for the No. 6 pick and $25,000 in allocation money. Louisville then flipped that pick to the Courage for McDonald.

“We are thrilled to have Jess join us in Louisville,” said James O’Connor, Racing Louisville’s executive vice president of development. “She is an outstanding person, and her record of scoring goals and achieving at the highest level is something that will help our team. Jess brings with her a wealth of experience as well as an incredible mentality to our team.”

McDonald will now suit up for a record seventh NWSL club after being a part of the Courage since 2016. The U.S. women’s national team forward has also had stints in Houston, Portland, Seattle, Western New York and Chicago.

McDonald, 33, currently ranks first in NWSL all-time assists with 27 and fourth in goals with 51. She’s been on a trio of NWSL Shield teams (2017-19) and won three NWSL championships with the Western New York Flash in 2016 and the Courage in 2018 and ’19. She was named MVP of the 2018 championship game after scoring twice to lead North Carolina past the Portland Thorns.

“My son and I are very excited for this new adventure in Louisville,” McDonald said. “I will give this program my best and hope to make the biggest impact I possibly can on and off the field. Thanks for taking a chance on me, Louisville.”

McDonald also won a World Cup championship with the USWNT in 2019. It was recently announced that McDonald will be inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame.

In a separate deal Friday, the Courage sent defender Julia Ashley to the Houston Dash in exchange for a second-round pick in Saturday’s college draft.