NWSL – 2020 NWSL Draft – First Round Review

A few notes:

*All advanced stats are from inStat. Not all matches this season were scored by inStat, explaining why some games are missing for some players.

*IMPACT ratings are calculated by myself via a proprietary formula using inStat data. The IMPACT rating is on a 0-5 scale that is not adjusted for strength of schedule. Thus, a 1.50 in a top conference like the Pac-12/ACC means much more than a 1.50 in a mid-major conference. Additionally, IMPACT ratings for attacking players generally tend to be higher. A 0.90 rating for a forward may be unimpressive for a early pick, whereas a 0.90 for a defender competing in a top league may be much more impressive.

ROUND ONE

1 – POR – Sophia Smith – F (LF, CF, RF) – Stanford

Stats of Note [20 match sample]:

IMPACT rating – 2.40

16 goals on approximately 14 xG
38% conversion rate
2.1 chances created per 90’
73% pass completion (19 passes per 90’)
1.3 key passes completed per 90’ (49% completion)
29% cross completion
43% aerial duels won
7 dribbles per 90’ (54% success)
3.2/12 – ball recovery-turnover ratio per 90’

Smith was always going to be the #1 pick in this draft if she indeed declared (barring a surprise early entry from teammate Catarina Macario), and she seems to have landed in a great spot right away. The Thorns have suffered as of late without a real quality #9, and Smith has the potential to be that player in time. If that’s her destiny, it may take a little bit longer to gel into that role, as she was tasked with playing out wide for Stanford. If Mark Parsons sticks with three at the back for Portland this year, Smith almost has to play centrally, though Smith could play there or wide left (when Tobin Heath is away) or wide right if the Thorns go to four at the back.

I was a lower vote than most on Smith coming into this season, as I wanted to see her prove it consistently over a full season after being cut down with injury midway through her rookie year. Concerns seemed to grow a bit as she missed early games this year, but Smith grew into the year and peaked at a great time, with her marvelous display in the College Cup semi-final against UCLA a crowning achievement for her short collegiate tenure.

In terms of parsing the numbers, Smith looks good in most areas. Her conversion rate, while not the best in the NCAA, is pretty darn good, especially given the number of chances coming her way. Smith’s passing numbers also point her out as likely one of this class’ best in distribution amongst forwards along with Tziarra King. Add in the dribbling numbers, and Smith could be a player with true star potential. She’s not great in the air, though her 43% success is higher than some forwards in this class, while the same could be said about her recovery-turnover ratio.

Overall, an excellent (if easy) pick for Portland, and they’ll likely be confident she was worth the price paid in acquiring the #1 pick.

2 – POR – Morgan Weaver – F (CF) – Washington State

Stats of Note [19 match sample]:

IMPACT rating – 1.79

8 goals on approximately 12 xG
32% conversion rate
1.4 chances created per 90’
56% pass completion (15 passes per 90’)
1.3 key passes completed per 90’ (61% completion)
30% cross completion
37% aerial duels won
3.3 dribbles per 90’ (55% success)
1.7/12 – ball recovery-turnover ratio per 90’

I thought it was a little weird that Portland traded up to #2 to take Weaver at the time, but I suppose it makes a little more sense in gaming out the other options. Ashley Sanchez didn’t make sense from a fit perspective given the pick of Smith before. Kaleigh Riehl would have been a stretch value-wise at #2. And Taylor Kornieck made little sense given the glut of central midfielders already on the roster right now. I suspected Weaver wasn’t going to drop much further beyond the second pick, so Portland made the aggressive move to slide up and get their woman.

At the same time though, I’m not sure Weaver’s definitively a top-five talent in this class. Recency bias is definitely going to play a role in some of these picks teams make during the draft (and Portland was by and large not the only team to fall into this trap), and it’s hard to discount the impact that Weaver made in Washington State’s shock run to the last four this December. She also started out the season hot but also endured a cold spell through the meat of the Pac-12 schedule, some of it playing a wide role that didn’t necessarily seem to suit her at times.

But there’s still a lot to like about Weaver. Her conversion rate numbers are solid for a secondary option in front of goal, and there shouldn’t be any doubt that Weaver isn’t going to be a #1 option for a team when everyone’s at full strength. In fact, her playmaking ability, seen through her key pass numbers (and cross completion) indicates that Weaver may be best seen as a complementary piece to help boost an offense rather than carry it on her back.

There are some things that need to be worked through though. The goals to xG ratio Weaver boasts isn’t great, and her dreadful overall pass completion numbers may be an unwanted tie towards how Portland played last season instead of how Mark Parsons surely envisions this year’s unit. Some of that may be down to Washington State’s style though, which wasn’t exactly conducive to huge pass completion numbers. Additionally, Weaver’s surprisingly weak in the air given her size.

I don’t think Weaver is a slam dunk, especially as a #2 pick that cost the Thorns assets to move up into. But I also think Portland’s one of the best situations Weaver could have landed in, a team that won’t be expecting her to hit the ground running to carry an entire offense on her back. It might take a little time, but Weaver has a chance to be a strong contributor for this new look Thorns attack.

3 – ORL – Taylor Kornieck – MF (MC) – Colorado

Stats of Note [21 match sample]:

IMPACT rating – 2.86

11 goals on approximately 12 xG
31% conversion rate
1.5 chances created per 90’
63% passes completed (32 passes per 90’)
1.5 key passes per 90’ (50% completed)
65% d. challenges won (7 per 90’)
73% aerial duels won (13 per 90’)
61% tackles won
2.6 dribbles per 90’ (53% successful)
7/17 – ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
6 interceptions per 90’

Kornieck was almost always going to be the pick of central midfielders in a class that was short on true star options at the position. After another strong season with Colorado, her stock as a top-five pick was almost assured, and it was hardly a surprise to see her come off the board this high, especially considering the paucity of quality options at the position in the rest of this class.

And yet, this feels like a selection that could be weighed down by the circumstances in which Orlando acquired the pick. After trading down with Portland and relinquishing their overall #1 pick, Orlando ended up getting back into the first round at #3 but paid a heavy price, giving up money, Rachel Hill, and two picks, including Orlando’s first rounder next season. That in itself is going to put enormous pressure on Kornieck to be a superstar here given all that was given up for this pick.

There’s a lot to like about Kornieck’s skill set. The massive midfielder showed many ways to score at college level, from her thunderous long shots to her awesome aerial ability. Her finishing was more than adequate for a midfielder, while Kornieck was the nation’s best player at winning aerial duels in terms of volume. Kornieck was a defensive challenge winning machine, both in terms of number as well as in terms of percentage. While Kornieck’s turnover numbers aren’t great, she at least made up for it by netting a lot of recoveries and interceptions.

Of course, there is a big question mark about Kornieck’s ability to transition to the next level. Her pass completion percentage has always been an Achilles’ heel, and it’s something that has probably kept her from featuring seriously at youth international level to this point. Some of this might be system related (Orlando’s other draft pick from CU last year, Erin Greening, also suffered from this), but it can’t all be down to that. I doubt anyone’s expecting Kornieck to be a metronome in midfield, but it’s hard seeing her being a game changer if her pass completion hovers around what it was in college.

Whether Kornieck turns out to be a success in Orlando is likely going to come down to fit and expectations. In terms of the latter, Marc Skinner has already set the bar perhaps unnecessarily high, comping Kornieck to Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan. While I can’t really speak to Horan’s development in France, Mewis’ passing range at this age was much greater than Kornieck, even if the aerial dominance bears some resemblance. My big worry is that Orlando expects too much, too soon from Kornieck in a midfield that still looks patchy after the draft. If Orlando simply asks Kornieck to win challenges, keep it simple with passes, and be a set-piece target early on, she could grow into her vast potential. But I also fear Kornieck’s being counted upon to be an overnight savior, which could be problematic on a lot of levels.

4 – WSH – Ashley Sanchez – F (LF, CF) – UCLA

Stats of Note [23 match sample]

IMPACT rating – 3.02

7 goals on approximately 6 xG
23% conversion rate
2.3 chances created per 90’
70% pass completion (36 passes per 90’)
2.7 key passes per 90’ (50% completion)
35% cross completion (1.5 crosses per 90’)
47% defensive challenges won
57% tackles won
35% aerial duels won
8 dribbles per 90’ (67% successful)
3.9/13 – ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
4.1 interceptions per 90’

The Spirit pulled off something of a mini-miracle in getting back into the first round of this year’s draft (as well as accruing a pick in next year’s first round) by trading Mallory Pugh to Sky Blue FC. It’s clear that Pugh was stagnating in Washington, and the move was great value for the Spirit since they likely would have left her unprotected in the expansion draft next year anyway.

With that pick, the Spirit nabbed Sanchez, who was a relatively surprising early entrant, especially when it was clear that Sophia Smith was going to be entering as well and was almost a certain lock at #1 to the Thorns. Sanchez slipped to #4, likely due to concerns about fit and need in Portland and Orlando but represents great value here for Washington given her upside and potential.

Sanchez endured a star-crossed three years at UCLA, entering as a wunderkind who had even been called up to the full USNWT (though she would not stick around) before struggling to gain traction a bit for the Bruins and seeing her reputation at this level dip a bit. But something clicked with Sanchez as a junior, and she finished her collegiate career on a high note with a blistering third season in Westwood, turning into a deadly winger/wing-back for the Bruins.

Sanchez’s strengths are readily evident through her advanced stats profile. She was an absolute chance creation machine as a junior, springing her UCLA teammates with key passes, leading the nation in the category in 2019. Additionally, Sanchez is a fine crosser, putting over a third of her attempts on-target. Beyond that though, Sanchez was a dynamite dribbler for the Bruins, completing over 8 attempts per 90’ and doing it a very high success rate as well. Those qualities could make Sanchez an early fan favorite in Washington.

The potential downside on Sanchez have been talked about at length as well. The reputation of disappearing during big matches has been a hard one to shake, but Sanchez was a whole lot better at delivering consistent performances across the board this season despite a few clunkers. There are also worries about Sanchez being able to defend professional level talent, but she held up relatively well numbers-wise for a winger last year.

The biggest question I have is what Washington envisions Sanchez’s role to be for the Spirit. Given her lukewarm conversion numbers and skill set, Sanchez would appear to work best as a complementary piece to the offense puzzle, helping unlock opportunities on goal for her teammates. The problem is, there’s not much proven scoring to go with Sanchez on the frontline, with Richie Burke casting a wide, wide net to put together a roster of forwards that resembles more quantity than proven quality at this point. If the Spirit can’t find running mates up front to feed off of Sanchez’s best qualities, the rookie’s impact could be a bit lesser than anticipated.

5 – SBFC – Evelyne Viens – F (CF) – South Florida

Stats of Note [18 match sample]

IMPACT rating – 2.94

25 goals on approximately 17 xG
40% conversion rate
1.7 chances created per 90’
73% pass completion (14 passes per 90’)
0.5 key passes per 90’ (43% completion)
36% aerial duels won
2.9 dribbles per 90’ (41% success)
0.4/12 – ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’

Sky Blue came into the week with an edict to improve the backline and the frontline, two areas of mass concern last season and heading into the new campaign. The easiest path towards improving the frontline was seemingly to take one of the highly-rated forwards in this class, but Sky Blue went a little above and beyond that by trading for Midge Purce and Mallory Pugh even before using this pick on Canadian sharpshooter Viens.

Viens’ draft stock heading into the week was one of my most interesting storylines, as teams in the league have been notorious with underrating international players from the college ranks. While that would be evident later in the day, the Canadian was simply too good a value to pass up, even in the middle portion of the first round. Viens stock likely only rose given her postseason efforts, where she carried the Bulls’ offense on her back with countless big goals in the final weeks of USF’s season.

Viens entered the college ranks as a largely anonymous prospect but leaves it as one of the greatest Canadian college players of her generation. She helped the Bulls hit new heights in the AAC and beyond and was lethally consistent in front of goal as a senior. Viens hasn’t suffered through many down patches throughout her collegiate career, which makes her continued omission from the Canadian WNT setup all the more puzzling. She was on the longlist of players for the Canadian WNT’s Olympic qualifying squad though, so there may be hope of an imminent call-up to the senior team.

It’s hard to find fault with Viens’ senior season, as she used her physical attributes and razor-sharp finishing to a season where she far outperformed her xG accrued. 40% conversion isn’t a high water mark in the college ranks, but it is right up in the mix, especially for a highly touted player drawing the attention of much of the defensive efforts of opponents. Viens wasn’t a bad passer by any means, but her lower key pass rate this season showcased her role as a pure scorer as much as any of the top attackers in this class.

Viens isn’t without a few holes in her game. She’s not great in the air and didn’t provide much in the way of defense last year, though that may be a matter of role and scheme. The Canadian also faces the same turnover ratio issues many forwards end up fighting. The biggest worry might be Viens’ dribbling success rate, which might be a case of trying to do a bit too much on her own. But she’ll also have better teammates with her at Sky Blue, and if she gets service, Viens could be a major part of a turnaround for the club.

6 – NC – Ally Watt – F (CF) – Texas A&M

Stats of Note [19 match sample]

IMPACT rating – 1.47

15 goals on approximately 15 xG
30% conversion rate
1.7 chances created per 90’
64% pass completion (17 passes per 90’)
1.4 key passes per 90’ (59% completion)
51% d. challenges won
43% aerial duels won
78% tackles won
2.7 dribbles per 90’ (65% success)
1.9/11 – ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
2.4 interceptions per 90’

What do you get for the club that has everything? It’s the enviable question that faced North Carolina coming into this draft after the Courage romped to another championship last season. Some of the renewal was already seen in offseason trades, notably the one that took McCall Zerboni to Sky Blue and Hailie Mace’s rights move to Carolina. But otherwise, the Courage had the luxury of looking for the best fit for their system.

Most felt that that fit would come in the form of Watt, especially after the draft class began to fill out with the late entering prospects mentioned above. It’s not like the Courage wanted for much given their strength in depth, but a little more depth on the frontline was a slight need considering how feeble Julia Spetsmark looked last year, along with Leah Pruitt looking like a potential bust early in her professional career.

Watt is the furthest thing from Pruitt stylistically, a quick forward who showed the capacity to take matches over during her collegiate career with Texas A&M. At her best, Watt looked almost unplayable, as evidenced by a few of her matches against Missouri, where she annihilated the Tigers almost single-handedly.

Watt’s conversion rate, at 30%, was acceptable but not overwhelming, especially compared to draft class rivals like Smith and Viens. That goes along with a scoring record which matched up relatively evenly with her xG count on the season. On the plus side of the ledger, Watt was a more than willing playmaker, even with her spotty overall pass completion, key pass rate working in her favor. Additionally, Watt wasn’t exactly called upon to be a defensive powerhouse in leading the line, but her numbers showed she was more than competent when called upon to defend from the front.

Consistency will probably the biggest question mark hanging over Watt as she begins her professional career. The forward that ripped apart teams like Missouri and Vanderbilt this year wasn’t the one that barely registered a peep against the likes of BYU and Brown earlier in the season. But the good news is that Watt isn’t going to be facing the pressure that some of the other first round picks will be right off the bat. She has time to learn from a talented corps of forwards and a coaching staff that has molded raw talent into elite level attackers. The A&M alum could be one of this year’s ace super subs with greater things to come.

7 – ORL – Courtney Petersen – D (LB) – Virginia

Stats of Note [18 match sample]

IMPACT rating – 0.94

1.2 chances created per 90’
80% pass completion (51 passes per 90’)
1.4 key passes per 90’ (51% completion)
1.5 crosses per 90’ (29% completion)
59% defensive challenges won (3.8 per 90’)
54% aerial duels won
69% tackles won
1.5 dribbles per 90’ (60% successful)
9/9 ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
4.8 interceptions per 90’
0.44 major mistakes per match

Orlando really needed a little of everything from this draft, as mentioned above, and attention clearly had to turn to the backline once some of the the midfield needs were met by drafting Kornieck. However, the Pride would skip over Kaleigh Riehl and instead go for left-back Courtney Petersen to hopefully fill a need to upgrade from Carson Pickett at the position.

The left-back market heading into the draft seemed pretty clear. Petersen and Julia Bingham were solidly in the upper-tier at the position before a pretty decided drop towards the next options on the board. Neither really seemed like a lock for first-round value, but given the history of teams getting aggressive to take full-backs in the opening round, it wasn’t exactly a shock that Orlando moved for the UVA left-back with this pick. At the same time though, Orlando also owned the tenth pick, and there’s a reasonable chance Petersen would’ve still been there at the top of the second round, or perhaps even at #14.

My evaluation of Petersen over the past four years has wavered a bit. I initially felt she was overrated by many before the situation boomeranged back around with the full-back seemingly becoming underrated as she put up a quietly excellent senior season for the Cavaliers. I’m not sure Petersen will develop into a superstar at the next level, but Orlando probably just need something approaching competence after the follies of the first season of the Skinner era on the backline.

Though Petersen isn’t going to kill opposition with dribbles up the pitch, she still was great in creating chances for UVA this past season, producing one of the highest totals of key passes for any full-back in the NCAA. Her crossing isn’t as razor-sharp as some of the others in this class, but it’s acceptable overall. Perhaps most encouragingly, Petersen hit the 80% mark with her pass completion, though you figure that will dip a bit at the next level. Still, full-backs who can pass in the NWSL aren’t exactly a common sight, so maintaining that passing ability might let Petersen stand out.

Defensively, Petersen didn’t really overwhelm as a senior, not hitting 60% d. challenges won, but she also wasn’t a liability either. We’ll see if her defensive ability holds up at the next level, though her offensive ability looks to be more of an asset at this point. One thing that definitely needs to improve is her recovery/turnover ratio, which sat at an unflattering even during her senior season. If Petersen can take care of the ball and maintain her passing accuracy, this could work out as one of Orlando’s best picks on the day.

8 – URFC – Tziarra King – F (LF, CF) – NC State

Stats of Note [22 match sample]

IMPACT rating – 2.14

13 goals on approximately 12 xG
30% conversion rate
1.2 chances created per 90’
76% pass completion (36 passes per 90’)
1.2 key passes per 90’ (46% completion)
55% defensive challenges won (4 per 90’)
50% aerial duels won
69% tackles won
3.9 dribbles per 90’ (65% successful)
4.3/13 ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
4.2 interceptions per 90’

Heading into the draft, most Utah fans probably just wanted the franchise to take the damn thing seriously. The two years of Laura Harvey at the controls had led to some utterly woeful selections, with none featuring more than intermittently for the franchise. Ironically, the club’s best domestic rookie of the past few seasons is probably Gabby Vincent, who signed as an undrafted free agent before last season began.

The Royals came into the draft needing much, but the most glaring needs seemed to be on the frontline after trades sent Makenzy Doniak and Katie Stengel out of Salt Lake City. That’s not to say Utah didn’t have other needs as well. The backline is aging, while the midfield is little better and likely in need of some additional steel when Desiree Scott is away on international duty.

King was in an interesting position in terms of her draft stock coming into Thursday. Before the flood of entries late in the process, the NC State forward looked like a contender for the top of the board. But her stock dipped, through no fault of her own, as the entry list became concrete, thanks to the addition of top name seniors as well as the early entries of Smith and Sanchez. It meant that King fell to the end of the first round but may be good value for the Royals side picking her.

King’s strengths are unique ones in comparison to many other forwards at the college level. Namely she passes well and is more than eager to defend from the front. King’s 76% pass completion may not sound like much to some, but it’s a huge number for a college forward, though not surprising given the demands of NC State’s style of play. Defensively, King impressed in both volume and success with her challenges, while also winning nearly 70% of her tackles.

Many of King’s weaknesses can be applied to her contemporaries at college level on the frontline. Her conversion rate, like Watt’s, is just around adequate, though still solid considering she played in the massively challenging ACC with very few secondary scoring options to help her out. There are also some complaints about consistency in big games, though King still fared better than many in the meat grinder of the ACC. She seems to be a great fit for a Harvey-type possession and passing type attack, though we’ll obviously have to wait on any stylistic changes a new coach brings about and how that affects King’s role as a rookie.

9 – RFC – Kelcie Hedge – MF (DMC, MC, LM) – Santa Clara

Stats of Note [15 match sample]

IMPACT rating – 1.60

4 goals on approximately 3.4 xG
33% conversion rate
1.1 chances created per 90’
80% pass completion (46 passes per 90’)
0.7 key passes per 90’ (36% completion)
54% defensive challenges won (7 per 90’)
54% aerial duels won
66% tackles won
1.9 dribbles per 90’ (64% successful)
4.3/13 ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
5.5 interceptions per 90’

The focus for the Reign this offseason has definitely not been on the draft, as the club has had to deal with losing their manager, a takeover from Lyon, and waiting an eternity to bring on a new manager that has drawn criticism. The Reign were never really strong drafters in the Laura Harvey era, and not much changed in the two seasons without her, though the club did find a massive diamond in the rough in Bethany Balcer, last year’s Rookie of the Year after going undrafted.

The Reign made the playoffs last year, but they did so by overcoming a litany of injuries and partially thanks to just how feeble the chasing pack really was. With the change in management, there’s absolutely no counting on managerial nous to get the club over the line in the face of extraordinary circumstances this season. It’s true that the Reign have some very talented players, but they also are aging in many areas of the pitch and are in desperate need of some youthful reinforcements.

Most notably, that includes the midfield, where the Reign have made do but have to deal with Jess Fishlock coming off serious injury and Allie Long and Bev Yanez both getting up in years. It was hardly a surprise then that the Pacific Northwest club grabbed Hedge with their first-round pick. It’s an ironic pick on some levels, as Hedge began her collegiate career with Washington before transferring down to WCC powerhouse Santa Clara, where she began to truly unlock her potential.

Hedge enjoyed a pretty good senior season, though she also didn’t quite have the same year as her breakout junior campaign. Had Hedge been in the draft pool after that year, it’s not quite unreasonable to think she might have been selected in the middle of the first round. Looking at her stat profile, Hedge was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades type in 2019 for the Broncos. She wasn’t a pure playmaker but did put together some key passes (though she also wasn’t exactly accurate with many of those attempts) and enjoyed a solid overall pass completion percentage. Hedge wasn’t a total defensive stopper in midfield, but her defense was solid enough, including a nice interception figure.

While Hedge looks to be a well-rounded midfielder, there is also the question of what her role is going to be in this midfield. Her defense probably isn’t enough to serve as a ‘6’, while she also probably doesn’t playmake well enough, meaning a role as a ’10’ might be difficult as well. That leaves the tweener role as an ‘8’ on the table. The bigger question might be which player Hedge pushes out of the starting lineup if she can crack the first XI. Regardless, Hedge looks to be a solid addition to a midfield that really needed it.

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