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Can the Washington Spirit use last year’s draft to help them this year?

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The 2018 NWSL College Draft could end up being a key for the Spirit’s 2019 roster

Caitlin Buckley

Unquestionably, the talk of the 2019 NWSL College Draft was the ongoing controversy surrounding Sky Blue FC and the lack of apparent progress towards bringing the New Jersey-based club up to appropriate standards off the field. However, the Washington Spirit’s takeover of the first round was not far behind, as they made major trades both the day before and the day of the draft to go from having two first round picks to four.

The Spirit used those picks in part to bolster their defense, selecting Samantha Staab with the 4th overall pick and Tegan McGrady at #7. After the draft, new head coach Richie Burke seemed very confident in both as potential starters. First of all, Staab was a standout with Clemson, and McGrady already has a USWNT cap thanks to her play at Stanford. Secondly, the NWSL draft still produces more immediate contributors than its MLS equivalent; coming off of a dreadful season, it’s reasonable to expect that top young prospects would be able to crack the Spirit lineup quickly.

However, there’s also a straight-up need for players who are actual defenders on the roster. Last year, Washington baffled observers by entering the season with four healthy defenders, with the depth coming from one defender-midfielder (Rebecca Quinn), flexibility from central midfielders (Meggie Dougherty Howard and Tori Huster), and attempting to convert a forward into a fullback (Mallory Eubanks). The Spirit entered 2019 needing to add defenders to the roster even more than they needed attacking help, which is an incredible thing considering the 2018 Spirit broke the league record for fewest goals.

And yet, they may well have even more of a need today than they did before the draft. Since the start of the year, Washington has added Staab and McGrady via the draft, and signed Megan Crosson. However, they also sent Estelle Johnson and Caprice Dydasco to Sky Blue on draft day to get McGrady, and per the Washington Post’s Steve Goff, they’re about to lose Quinn to Paris FC and to send center back Whitney Church to the Houston Dash.

In other words, they’ve lost more defenders than they’ve added, and that’s before you factor in Taylor Smith’s torn ACL. If the Spirit had to play a game today, they’d probably have to start Eubanks at right back, and play Crosson (largely a left back in her previous NWSL stints) as a center back alongside Staab, with McGrady at left back.

One potential solution for this problem, and one that has been brought up frequently by the Spirit’s fans, press box regulars, and NWSL observers of all stripes, is the fact that they also took several defenders at the 2018 draft. Washington used the 11th overall pick on defender Schuyler DeBree, while left back Brittany Basinger was the 21st overall pick. That gave them two US under-23 national team players, a pool that has provided plenty of viable NWSL starters throughout the league. Then, with the Boston Breakers folding just days later, they used the NWSL dispersal draft to add center back Elizabeth Wenger, who had gone 17th overall. None of those players ended up appearing at any point for the Spirit, though DeBree did dress once as a national team replacement player mid-season.

DeBree ended up playing in the Czech Republic with AC Sparta Praha, while Basinger ended up at Icelandic club Stjarnan FC. Wenger, who in 2018 could have been added without needing to worry about roster spots due to dispersal draft rules, signed with FF Lugano 1976 in Switzerland despite the Spirit finding themselves in dire need of reinforcements at the back.

We reached out to the Spirit over whether they still retained the rights to any of those players, but the club declined to comment on the matter. Per last year’s roster rules, there are two pertinent clauses addressing this situation:

The rights to any college players selected in the NWSL College Draft shall be assigned to the drafting Team’s College Protected List until the end of the season immediately following the Draft (the “Protected Period”), except as noted below. Rights to Players on a Team’s College Protected List are assets of the Team and may be kept, waived or traded, at the Team’s discretion during the Protected Period. If waived, and not picked up off of waivers by another Team, the player becomes discovery eligible.

That bold phrase is our addition, because it connects to this:

If a player is drafted by a Team in the Draft and the Team wants to add that player to their roster, the League will attempt to sign the player to a Standard Player Agreement (SPA) at a salary determined by the League Office... If a player is not offered a SPA, or does not attend her drafting Team’s preseason training, she will remain on the drafting Team’s College Protected List through the Protected Period. If a player is offered a SPA during the Protected Period but does not sign it, she shall remain on her drafting Team’s College Protected List until the beginning of the following season’s preseason.

DeBree was not a part of the Spirit’s 2018 preseason while she finished her studies, meaning that if Washington offered her an SPA, she would remain on their protected list until this year’s preseason kicks off in a little over a month. Basinger, on the other hand, was present during preseason training sessions, though an injury kept her on the sidelines when Black and Red United was in attendance. There is nothing in the roster rules on this front about the dispersal draft, so Wenger’s status is even less clear. We reached out to the NWSL to clarify the situation, but did not get a reply.

It is unclear whether any of this trio received an SPA, which is another way of saying we have no idea whether the Spirit have maintained their NWSL rights. However, it does seem safe to say that adding them makes plenty of sense. At worst, you’d have DeBree and Wenger joining Staab in a real competition for the two starting center back roles (based on Burke’s comments at the draft, a four-back is his preference). While left back appears settled with McGrady and Crosson, one of them or Basinger could potentially play on the right, avoiding the prospect of having someone who is learning on the job as a starter.

Burke did note at the draft that the club has “a couple” of internationals that could be heading to the World Cup this summer, and rumors since then have heavily pointed towards those players being Australian, which could mean the needed defensive reinforcements are coming from one of the world’s best national teams.

However, even if both players are defenders — and there’s no evidence at this point to assume that they will be — the fact is that the Spirit would have just five natural defenders available, leaving them clearly needing to make further additions. Making trades within the league will be difficult, as most NWSL clubs find themselves looking for additional defenders rather than having an extra player to put on the market. The Spirit could sidestep that potential quandary by turning back the clock and offering last year’s unsigned draft picks a deal.