A Dive Into the NWSL Expansion Draft, and a Look Ahead to What’s Next

With the 2024 NWSL Expansion Draft behind us, we take a look at the actual draft results in addition to how they will affect offseason moves to come. 

The NWSL offseason is typically a chaotic time. But with free agency and an expansion draft thrown into the mix this year, we can expect the chaos meter to crank up a few notches. It’s been somewhat quiet so far, but with the expansion draft wrapping up over the weekend, we can now prepare ourselves for real crazy hours.

Bay FC and the Utah Royals are joining the league in 2024, and just like we saw in 2022 with Angel City and San Diego Wave, we got ourselves an expansion draft.

While the concept of such a draft might be simple — new teams need players, so they select a few from rosters of currently existing teams — the minutiae can get pretty complicated.

The league added a rule stating that an expansion side can take two players from each existing team. To get full expansion draft protection, meaning full assurance that no player on a club’s roster would get selected, clubs had to make deals with both expansion sides.

Seven out of the 12 NWSL sides got out ahead of things and received full expansion draft protection, while OL Reign, Chicago Red Stars, Racing Louisville, San Diego Wave, and North Carolina Courage either received no or partial protection.

The Reign and Red Stars didn’t make any preemptive moves, while San Diego and North Carolina got protection from Utah and Louisville from Bay FC.

It has since come out that San Diego didn’t properly grasp the rules and assumed only one player could be chosen by a given expansion team, not one from each. In obtaining protection from Utah, the club assumed they were fully covered from a player getting selected. To San Diego’s defense, this is how every previous NWSL expansion draft has worked, including the one it participated in two years ago.

In total, there were 16 trades made by protected teams, which is a testament to the quality that the NWSL has — a loss of a starting-caliber player could make or break a team’s season. You can see this in the players left unprotected as well.

North Carolina left Brianna Pinto and Fuka Nagano (currently with Liverpool) unprotected. Maybe not outright stars, but both are quality players for any squad and probably easy starters for an expansion side. OL Reign left Elyse Bennett unprotected as well as Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock.

Louisville left Thembi Kgatlana unprotected, and the South African international had a strong World Cup last year and was a solid contributor in league play.

Chicago is in a weird spot — the team wasn’t very good last season and is currently without a GM or head coach. So it’s not a surprise that the Red Stars didn’t make a big move in exchange for expansion protection, and ultimately no Red Stars player was selected in the draft.

The quality is there for the taking in a league like the NWSL, giving expansion some heightened stakes.

The Draft

nwsl expansion draft 2024

The actual expansion draft itself was fairly boring. Teams passed on five picks and Utah only selected two players. This has led to some loud frustrations from parts of the fanbase and even some journalists to ask, what’s the point of an expansion draft in the first place?

Why not simply remove the draft and give expansion teams more money to sign players? The concern is that expansion teams would have no leverage in making deals, and they would be forced to take whatever price a current team named. Building a club entirely out of free agents and draft picks isn’t feasible, so an expansion draft gives established clubs incentive to work with fledgling sides.

Now could we still give expansion teams more money? Yes we should. Should the established teams be able to protect more than nine players, like maybe at least their starting line up? Absolutely. The draft is flawed, and I believe there is a way to make it work, but with all that said if it went away I wouldn’t bat an eye.

Angel City and San Diego Wave were exactly the same in their approach two years ago, being trade heavy and adding one to two contributors via the actual expansion draft.

I also want to make one quick note on the teams passing on players even after all these trades happened — it’s clear they only wanted to select players that were OK going to their new location. This is in stark contrast to Louisville, who in 2020 selected three players from outside leagues — Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Caitlin Foord — who had no intentions of playing for the club, and unsurprisingly never featured in a Louisville jersey.

More flaws with the expansion draft revealed themselves shortly after the actual draft. Bay FC traded its last pick, Sierra Enge, to Houston, who then promptly traded her back to San Diego Wave, her team from last season. In the process, Bay FC received $50,000 in allocation money, while Houston got $60,000, a third-round draft pick in 2024, and Belle Briede.

Utah subsequently traded its first expansion pick Elyse Bennett to San Diego as well. Not even 48 hours and two players selected have moved teams. These types of trades make it hard to defend the expansion draft. If the players taken aren’t seen as viable or actually needed, then a new mechanism needs to be created for expansion teams joining, because this expansion draft has felt odd, and it has also delayed the free agency movement in the league.

With that all said, let’s examine each team’s picks — or at least the ones that they kept.

Bay FC

scarlett camberos bay fc

Through trades alone, you could almost count Bay FC’s expansion process as a success. Scarlett Camberos is a Mexican international that had a strong second half of 2023 after joining Angel City FC a few months into the season. Alex Loera is a quality right back and Emily Menges can bring a veteran presence. Both Ellie Jean and Dorian Bailey are starting quality as well, giving Bay FC a strong foundation. All of those players were added to the team via expansion protection deals. In addition, the club signed free agent Caprice Dydasco, who in 2021 won NWSL Defender of the Year.

In the draft portion, Bay FC was the more busy of the two sides. The No. 1 overall pick was Alyssa Malonson, a young center back from OL Reign with upside. Forward Rachel Hill and goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland have experience, with Rowland having four NWSL championships under her belt. All in all, Bay FC is in a great spot to impact the standings immediately, with a solid core that is young and has room to grow. All the club needs is an out-and-out star to lead the way.

Utah Royals

Utah’s trades didn’t bring in as many starters for day one as Bay FC’s did, but what Utah did instead is load up on first-year player draft picks. Getting an additional five picks with two of them in the first round sets the club up nicely to create a young core.

Utah’s trust in its scouts shows in the players it did get in its pre-draft trades. Kate Del Fava is a starter for sure, but other than her it’s players that have shown flashes or potential but haven’t done so consistently. Utah only selected two players from the expansion draft and only kept Paige Monaghan, a young player with high upside that hasn’t quite found a consistent rhythm in the league yet.

To Utah’s credit, this is the perfect opportunity for that kind of player. The minutes will be there if Monaghan can step up, and she is highly rated for a reason. Utah is clearly looking towards the college draft as its main mechanism, but it still did fine business Friday night.

So, What’s Next?

With only seven picks in the actual expansion draft, the trades made pre-draft set up a particularly exciting rest of the offseason. Most of the trades involved first-year player draft picks (Utah is sitting on three first and four second round picks) and allocation money.

One thing to note about allocation money and expansions — the expansion teams have more allocation money than a normal team; giving them the ability to make trades for players or have an upper hand in negotiating with a free agent while still having money for their squad.

I don’t think we’re done seeing trades involving expansion teams either, they still need to fill out squads and sometimes a known quantity is better than a draft pick, even if the ceiling on the player is lower. And post-expansion draft, some teams might be looking at the college draft a little more seriously.

Free agents can sign with teams again, so expect some action pretty quickly; Crystal Dunn and Rose Lavelle highlight some high quality free agents available. Angel City’s Sarah Gorden and Savannah McCaskill have not re-signed as of publishing either. We have already seen the first player to switch teams via free agency when Angelina signed with Orlando Pride before the expansion draft. With the amount of high quality free agents available, the expansion draft feels more like an hors d’oeuvre to get us ready for the real craziness to come.

Leave a Reply