Draft Day 2024 in the National Women’s Soccer League will be remembered as a day the Washington Spirit embarked on a rebuilding project.
Time will tell what they do with the allocation money acquired throughout the day, but in a span of less than four hours the club jettisoned two key members of its 2021 NWSL Championship side. The return for center back Sam Staab and midfielder Ashley Sanchez was a pile of allocation money and a pair of first-round picks. The addition of the No. 3 and No. 5 picks gave the Spirit four total selections in the opening round.
Collecting first-round picks is a strategy that has worked in the past. Staab was the No. 4 pick in 2019 when the Spirit also took Jordan Baggett (nee DiBiasi, No. 3), Tegan McGrady (No. 7), and Dorian Bailey (No. 8). They added Sanchez with the No. 4 pick in 2020 and then Trinity Rodman and Tara McKeown at No. 2 and 8, respectively in 2021. Washington won the NWSL Championship later that year.
More famously, the Western New York Flash selected Abby Dahlkemper (No. 3), Sam Mewis (No. 4), Lynn Williams (No. 6), and Jaelene Daniels (nee Hinkle, No. 7) in 2015. That quartet formed much of the core that won the NWSL Championship in 2016 and then moved with the team to North Carolina and dominated the league over the next three years.
It is rare, however, for a team to be making so many first-round picks by dealing away major pieces of a championship team. And keep in mind that allocation money can be used to make a major splash on the international market, which could instantly turn what looks like a rebuild one day into something entirely different the next.
Here is a closer look at three major trades that went down on NWSL Draft night.
Spirit acquire no. 3 pick from Chicago for Sam Staab
Pretty much everyone who weighed in on this trade was doing so while scratching their heads. Staab not only made the Best XI in 2023 but she is as reliable as they come having started every regular-season match for the Spirit since she was drafted in 2019. Last year, then coach Mark Parsons made the decision to push Tara McKeown back to play central defense next to Staab. And with Staab leading the line, the Spirit remained a solid defensive team for large parts of the season.
As for the pick, the Spirit used it on Georgia midfielder Croix Bethune. ION TV analyst Jordan Angeli said that Bethune “glides on the ball” and will be a big boost to the Spirit attack. Bethune could wind up being something of a replacement for Sanchez.
“A little bit of cheekiness,” Bethune said about her game during an interview on ION shortly after being drafted. “Although I am young, being a natural leader [and] bringing whatever I can to the table as well as learning from everyone that is there.”
The trade was almost as surprising for the Red Stars even though they made their roster better by acquiring one of the best defenders in NWSL. The roster in Chicago has been gutted since the end of 2021 and Staab definitely fills a void and at least pumps the brakes on the narrative that everyone is leaving. (It was previously reported that Mallory Swanson, whose husband is on a long-term contract with MLB’s Chicago Cubs, is expected to re-sign as a free agent.) Coming into Friday, the Red Stars would have been the team considered more likely. to add picks. But acquiring Staab to anchor the back line is a nice start to a recovery. And she should be a welcome sight for goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
Spirit acquire no. 5 pick and $250K allocation money from Courage for Ashley Sanchez
Sanchez is a much more difficult player to dissect than Staab. After being pinned to the bench for the United States’ entirety of last summer’s World Cup, she did not play well for the Spirit down the stretch. It did not help matters that the team’s results swooned along with Sanchez’s play. What was supposed to be a decade-long partnership between Sanchez and Rodman is no more.
At her best, Sanchez is one of the best midfielders on the ball in the NWSL. She maintains possession exceptionally well, which allows time for teammates to make more effective runs and create space.
The Spirit used the No. 5 pick on Hal Hershfelt from Clemson, the same school that produced Staab. Another attacking player, Hershfelt will add some much-needed grit to a Spirit team that went out with a whimper down the stretch last fall.
“Hershfelt is a player who is versatile,” Angeli said on the ION desk, “but she is gritty. This is going to add a level to Washington. They’re going to be technical but they’re going to want to also have a bite to them that I think they lacked last year.”
The Courage will hope to give Sanchez some fresh energy as they look to make up for losing Caroline, who tore her ACL in the final regular-season game of 2023. The departure of fullback Emily Fox to Arsenal was another major blow for North Carolina. But in Sanchez they acquired a player who can change a game with her technical play in midfield and sometimes higher.
As for the Courage…
Chicago acquires No. 10 picks from Courage for $175K in allocation money
This looks like a steep price to pay for the No. 10 picks. The valuation of draft picks, especially in the age of allocation money, has been an inexact science over the years and appears to come down to how much each team wants to make a particular trade at any given time. Repeating the maxim above, you never know where allocation money is going. But in this case, we know its final destination is not North Carolina. The two trades left them with a net of $75,000 on the day.
The Red Stars used the pick to grab Leilanni Nesbeth. The forward/midfielder played at Florida State, where the head coach early in her career was Spirit president and general manager Mark Krikorian. Chicago wound up dropping from No. 3 to No. 10 and adding Staab. Trading the allocation money may be a sign that Chicago is not yet a destination for high-salary players. But with new owners and a new coach, and a soon-to-be-named new general manager, the new era of Red Stars soccer is underway.
If these trades were not enough for you, be on the lookout for more movement in the coming days.