NWSL – The Peculiar Case of Elizabeth Guess, the Portland Thorns, and Ever Puzzling Roster Rules

I’ll freely admit that this column has taken a turn since I first began mapping it out last night when more questions began to be asked in lieu of the Breakers’ unexpected move of waiving Elizabeth Guess after the former UNC player had assisted on the club’s goal in the opener against Washington. Given what’s about to follow, I certainly didn’t expect Guess to find a new home so easily, but that she did and who she found it with opens up a whole different bag of worms, as you’ll probably see.

Nobody is going to deny that the NWSL has experienced some teething problems early on, from the lack of actual centralized promotion from the league in the run-up to the new season to the often temperamental steams in the opening few weeks, but all of that seems like window dressing in my eyes compared to the often non-sensical and quite possibly inconsistent application of an increasingly draconian set of roster rules. Not that it’s necessarily been an easy go for the league, who’s had to deal with injuries, pregnancies, players starting the season abroad, players not bothering to come stateside to play, and federation interference…and that’s just with allocated players.

Beyond that though, the hoops through which clubs had to jump through to build a roster seemed borderline asinine at times. While things seemed to run relatively smoothly through the rookie draft, piles upon piles of regulation raised more questions as the preseason went along. There was the rather bizarre supplemental draft, where many a club selected players who had no intention of playing, a spectacle no doubt not helped by the league leaving it up to the teams to put together a list of players they were conceivably interested in, instead of freely taking in the names of interested participants only. The end product was something of a fiasco, with Pacific Northwest clubs Portland and Seattle looking sheepish after first round picks Tina Ellertson and Nikki Krzysik both declined to play in the new league. It was far from the only misstep, as many of the league’s clubs saw later round picks also decline to sign with the club. Adding to the oddness, after the first set of preseason cuts, a previously unannounced waiver draft was held. A second waiver draft would not be held after final preseason cuts.

Things would get weirder from there. Just how weird wasn’t exactly clear until the regular season approached, and the puzzling roster policy was only brought into further question by the earlier mentioned waiving of Guess by the Breakers and the revelation that the club wasn’t being allowed to sign a roster replacement for the injured Bianca D’Agostino. Some likely blamed the club for carrying just eighteen players to begin with, the league minimum, when teams could carry up to twenty (or one or two more depending on allocation circumstances).

Which brings me to a rather contentious revelation. Having, at the final roster cut, publicly wondered why, when injuries and international duty would surely make a roster of twenty rather than eighteen more feasible long-term, many clubs would choose to carry just the minimum number of players mandated by the league, a little birdie flew by my inbox and provided some rather eye-opening news. I, like many others, had naturally assumed that after the supplemental draft, clubs were free to sign players as they pleased to fill out their rosters. I was informed that this was not the case.

Clubs were apparently limited to the four (or more in the case of clubs with special circumstances) “discovery” players they had the ability to sign after the supplemental draft. The author’s ear heard that some of the clubs were surprised to say the least about this revelation, resulting in multiple clubs carrying the league minimum players on their roster. Even in the case of injury, if a team was out of free agent and discovery player slots, clubs were not being permitted to sign a player that had not been selected in either the rookie or supplemental draft by them. Cue the anxiety as some clubs likely began to wonder how they could shuffle their roster and stay viable on the pitch.

The short-term answer seems to be a club’s ability to call up “reserve” players to bring the club up to the league minimum in the event of an injury crisis or international absences. The league rulebook notes that these players are unpaid, save for expenses, which is a rather contentious issue in itself. The above revelations bring up a rather mind-boggling Catch 22 situation though. If a reserve player proves to be thoroughly impressive if given a shot in an actual game situation, but nobody has an open free agent or discovery player slot, that player essentially has no recourse in pursuing a paid contract until the next NWSL season.

Which brings us back around to the news that Elizabeth Guess had been claimed on waivers by the Portland Thorns. From a roster regulation standpoint, this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Here are the non-allocated/drafted players currently on the Portland roster:

Free Agent
-Becky Edwards
-Allie Long
-Nikki Marshall
-Nikki Washington

-Jazmyne Avant
-Danielle Foxhoven
-Adelaide Gay
-Emilee O’Neil
-Meleana Shim
-Courtney Wetzel

In theory, you could explain away the two extra discovery player slots by reasoning the league was compensating the Thorns for losing both their Mexican allocations through circumstances that were entirely out of their hands. But Guess makes a seventh discovery player signed, which would seemingly be against the league’s edict on the number of discovery players able to be signed. Unless Guess is somehow not being treated as a discovery player for Portland despite signing with Boston as one.

An official explanation would be nice, though I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation of one.

10 thoughts on “NWSL – The Peculiar Case of Elizabeth Guess, the Portland Thorns, and Ever Puzzling Roster Rules

  1. JJ

    Maybe there are different rules for Discovery players who had to try out for the team?? I’m pretty sure Emilee O’Neil, Meleana Shim and Courtney Wetzel all attended open try outs. Anyway smh at this league and their rules…

  2. vert2013

    I’m assuming once players were rostered it didn’t matter how they got there unless they were allocated. I have a feeling that once they made the initial roster it all the free agents, supplemental draft picks and discovery players were on equal footing.

    1. Chris Henderson Post author

      I’m not sure that explains why Boston aren’t being allowed to sign a replacement player for D’Agostino if all players are now on “equal footing”.

      1. vert2013

        Yeah that doesn’t make sense from the Boston standpoint, but it does from the Portland side. I think they would have to be on equal footing for stuff like trades though. It would be next to impossible to get any transactions done if they weren’t.

  3. kt5000

    The roster rules are so difficult to understand!

    At each stage of the process, you could have reasons that players don’t end up on the roster:

    In Allocation – Players were temporarily “lost” to overseas contracts; out for the season at a minimum due to injury or pregnancy; or out for good due to retirement or the federation changing its mind about allocating/funding the player.

    College Draft – It seems that some drafted players did not totally commit to playing. Furthermore, some were cut in training camps (maybe because they weren’t totally committed).

    Free Agency – The safer bet, although if this player has a season-ending injury, there appears to be no recourse.

    Supplemental Draft – Obvious issues here. Some players chose not to play.

    Discovery Players – totally confusing. At first it sounded like it was just calling “dibs”, and you could only call “dibs” on a limited # of players, but now that’s unclear.

    So, just hypothetically, if a team encountered all of these issues at every stage, they’d need a LOT of discovery players, all of which would need to be paid salaries (since your allocated players, who are paid for, are not playing) under the same salary cap as other teams.

    It’s so odd and mind-boggling!

  4. Lorenzojose

    I’m not sure a discovery player for one team is a discovery player for the other teams.

    Once. Team waives rights, it would seem they are free agents to the other teams (but not the original team that claimed her)

    And it might have more to do with a player putting a team over the salary cap, which would explain teams carrying 18 players.

    Without published rules, we are all just guessing.

  5. sec

    One explanation is that Guess was not a Discovery Player when signed by the Thorns. She was waived by the Breakers, changing her status. As your column and the Thorns press release both indicate, she was “claimed off waivers,” not signed anew as a Discovery Player. The important distinction is that one NWSL team (Breakers) had her rights for the season, but then waived her.

    Alternatively, the league rules indicate that the limit of four Discovery Players was only an initial limitation, to limit the ability of clubs to claim/sign several such Players at the outset of preseason camp. Additional Discovery signings “may be permitted” — presumably after all clubs have had a reasonable time period to sign their initial group of four Discovery Players.


    “Will there be opportunities after the four Discovery Players for teams to add any other players?

    After the initial four Discovery Players are selected and once teams have gone into camp, additional Discovery Players may be permitted.”

    I don’t understand why the Breakers did what they did with Guess, but it seems they used up all their salary money on just 18 players (including D’Agostino), and needed a defender instead of Guess. I don’t think they were restricted otherwise. I don’t think the Breakers were out of “slots” for players — they were at 18 players, not 20, as your column states.

    1. Chris Henderson Post author

      That link above says one thing, but I’ve had it explained to me that in practice, that rule is being enforced in a very different manner. At least one club at the discovery player limit coming out of camp wanted to sign additional players to fill out their roster but were not permitted by the league.

  6. Kendra

    The discovery player is a bit confusing. Once Portland signed Avant I just assumed a discovery player was one that was not chosen in the draft or signed as a free agent but never had to tryout at the open tryouts of a team. Most of the names you list for Portland were signed after they had a tryout with the team. My thoughts are they they aren’t breaking any rules. In the long term, the league needs to just get rid of the discovery player and just have free agents.

  7. Terry Lash

    It is not surprising that the first-year roster rules were complex, opaque and perhaps inconsistent. There was very little time to create the system out of whole cloth. The more interesting issue concerns next year. How will national team members be assigned to teams? How will free agents be treated? How will the draft be run? Related to these questions is the fundamental question, what is the purpose of the league? Initially, the purpose primarily seems to be development of players for the three national teams. Secondarily, perhaps only for the US, is identification of potential new players for the national teams. In other words, there does not seem to be a major focus on making profits, which is different than just not losing money (or at least not a lot of money). To grow the women’s game and for teams to be profitable, the fan base needs to be increased in most venues by a factor of five or more from current levels. To achieve such levels of paid attendance better facilities are needed, except for Portland. But how can soccer specific, modern stadiums that can accommodate 15,000-20,000 fans be afforded by teams? Who is willing to bet the cost of such a stadium, given current attendance levels, hoping that many more fans will show up at such facilities?


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