(If you haven’t already, check out the accompaniying podcast for this post in the last post, on SoundCloud, or on iTunes.)
1. Alana Cook – D (CB) – Stanford
Sometimes, the safe choice is the right choice. In this case, with a draft class that looks so shaky on paper, Cook looks like the surest thing, with Connolly and Kuikka potentially headed back to Europe and Scarpa having an unsettled position. Already a U23 international for the U.S., Cook looks to be the latest in a long line of Stanford defenders that could feature at the next level. A highly touted prospect coming into Palo Alto before the 2015 season, Cook made a case for herself as one of the nation’s best center-backs right away and won league Freshman of the Year honors. Needing to follow that up with an encore, Cook pretty much did the same, shining at center-back and playing every minute of the season for the Card while winning All-Pac-12 Second Team honors for the second straight season. The key test now is if Cook can be the leader that the club needs in central defense with Maddie Bauer graduated and with Stanford needing to break in a new starting keeper. If Cook can show that side of her game is elite, there could be no stopping her, as she’s physically strong and quick enough to handle most forwards in all likelihood.
2. Megan Connolly – MF (AMC) – Florida State
After an otherworldly freshman season in 2015, I mused that Connolly was already one of the nation’s best players after just one first team All-America season for the Noles. In retrospect, following up such a season was going to be almost impossible for anyone, even a player as talented as Connolly. Playing a #10 role as a freshman, Connolly netted nine goals and ten assists, playing even better than those numbers would indicate. Following that debut season, Connolly was capped at senior international level for the first time and looked to build on 2015’s success as a sophomore. But FSU’s offense was notably erratic at times, the club missing the finishing prowess of Cheyna Williams, and Connolly struggled to carry the biggest burden as the Noles tried to figure it out around her. Granted, Connolly still finished tied for the team lead in goals with seven and made five of those game winners, but few could argue that her sophomore campaign had been as eye-catching as the year before. Talent-wise, Connolly could still easily be this class’ best player, but I’m not sure it’s such a walkover any more. We’ll probably have a much better feel for Connolly’s ceiling after her junior year.
3. Jessie Scarpa – D (CB), F – North Carolina
A player with a bunch of upside and an uncertain role at the next level. Scarpa’s been a force at collegiate level through two seasons but was one of many who did not show their full potential at the U20 World Cup last year for the U.S. Scarpa made a massive impression early as a freshman, as she was one of the best young prospects in America despite coming off an ACL injury from her high school days, playing center-back as well as a more attacking role in midfield as a rookie. Scarpa was all attack leading the line in 2015, netting eight goals and adding eight assists in a breakout season offensively for the Heels. It will be interesting to see where Scarpa fits into this Tar Heel team upon her return this season, as the club found some offense in her absence last season, potentially putting a move back to the backline in play, though they’re pretty well off there as well with Julia Ashley quarterbacking the defense. Is she a target forward at the next level? A center-back? Regardless, Scarpa’s just scratching the surface of her potential and should be a first round pick in this class.
4. Natalia Kuikka – D (CB, LB), MF (AML) – Florida State
Heading into last season, Kuikka looked like one of the most exciting youngsters in the nation having been massively impressive as a freshman marauding down the left wing as an attacker with six goals and five assists to her name despite having to deal with international duty for Finland. And then Mark Krikorian turned her into a center-back. All Kuikka did after the move was win All-America honors, the only player in this draft class to do so last season. In the process, Kuikka picked up her second straight ACC Tournament MVP honor while looking like a natural in central defense, playing every minute in nineteen matches. Despite playing as a defensive anchor, Kuikka still managed to tie for the team lead in assists with five and is more than capable of contributing offensively as her freshman season is evidence of. Kuikka is probably a little small at 5’6” for a top-level center-back, but her defensive ability and attacking chops make her a perfect candidate for a switch to left-back. Versatility and upside could have Kuikka in as a first-round pick in this draft class…if she doesn’t opt for a return to Europe.
5. Emily Ogle – MF (MC) – Penn State
Along with teammate Kaleigh Riehl, Ogle was one of the nominees for the U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year award this past year, underlining the potential of the central midfielder who looks like a sure bet for the first round at this point. Now a U.S. U23 international, Ogle initially burst onto the scene as a big name recruit for PSU in 2014, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after a six assist campaign. Ogle would again be a big part of the Nittany Lions’ success a season later, scoring seven goals and adding five assists on strong efficiency numbers from her spot in midfield as PSU won their first national title. International duty would be the call of the day in 2016, as Ogle redshirted with a handful of teammates at PSU to play in the U20 World Cup, where she started in midfield but struggled to really get the American offense firing at full throttle in a disappointing tournament. Ogle is capable in a deep role or further up in central midfield, but to lock herself in as a potential top five pick, she’ll need to answer questions about her dynamism in the center of the park and show she can carry this midfield with Nickolette Driesse having graduated.