National Women's Soccer League
Red Stars' Focus on Draft Pays Dividends in 2016
January 18, 2016
BALTIMORE—It’s pretty tough to beat the Chicago Red Stars on draft day, something the club has proven over the past three years.
Since the first NWSL draft in 2013 the team has selected six players who were regular starters and major contributors in its 2015 campaign—a season which saw the team finish second in the league table.
In 2013, the Red Stars drafted a relative unknown in the fourth round, Princeton forward Jen Hoy, who has gone on to start 31 games over the past two seasons, while playing in 40 out of 44 contests.
In 2014, Chicago drafted Julie Johnston—who was not yet a full U.S. international—and Vanessa DiBernardo. Johnston went on to win Rookie of the Year honors en route to becoming a regular for the U.S. women and star at the 2015 World Cup. DiBernardo, for her part, has started 39 out of 44 matches for the Red Stars over the past two seasons and proved herself a vital cog in Chicago’s midfield.
In that same draft, the Red Stars also acquired the rights to Casey Short—who it signed this off-season after Short won Top XI honors in the Norwegian Toppserien—and whom the team now projects to slot immediately into its starting XI.
In 2015, Chicago picked up Arin Gilliland, Danielle Colaprico, and Sofia Huerta—all of whom were voted onto the league’s Second XI as rookies. In addition, Colaprico and Huerta were finalists for Rookie of the Year. Colaprico won the award and has since earned two consecutive call-ups to the U.S. national team.
Even more impressive is what the Red Stars have traded away for many of those draft slots—a series of inconsequential picks, players nearing retirement, and expertly negotiated two-for-one swaps that left Chicago well ahead in the final tally.
This year, even before the 2016 draft, the Red Stars have already been busy strengthening a lineup which some would argue is already the deepest in the league.
First, in November, it traded Abby Erceg—who had struggled at times in 2015—for accomplished U.S. international Whitney Engen. Then, less than two weeks later—believing it already had a good enough center back pairing with Julie Johnston and Sam Johnson—the Red Stars dealt Engen to the Boston Breakers for U.S. netminder Alyssa Naeher.
Speaking to American Soccer Now at the draft, head coach Rory Dames shed some light on the move, explaining that while he had faith in now back-up goalkeeper Michele Dalton, the opportunity to acquire Naeher was too good to pass up. He also said that the move made sense, especially considering Boston’s coach, Matt Beard, had worked with Engen before in England and wanted her on the Breakers.
“We would have been happy with Whitney,” Dames said. “But we wanted to bring in a goalie that had some international experience. Michele was great for us last year—she led the league in goals against. We would have been okay with Michele too, but the fact that we were able to make a play for Alyssa was a no-brainer.
“Matt has a history with [Whitney] from Liverpool, so it made sense to put it all together. With Alyssa as our No. 1 and Michele No. 2, I feel pretty good that we have the best goalkeeping tandem in the league.”
At first glance, the move was a bit surprising, especially considering how bullish Dames had been on Dalton in the run-up to the playoffs in 2015 and how thin the Red Stars appear at center back. However, Dames expressed supreme confidence in Johnson to excel in a starting role alongside Johnston in 2016.
“I’m extremely confident in Sam. If you do some analytics on our team and look back at how many goals we’ve conceded over the last two years when Sam has been in the games, our plus-minus ratio is fairly high,” said Dames. “She’s brave, she puts her body into tackles, she blocks a lot of shots, rarely gets beat 1 v. 1, and she’s really put a lot of time into improving her ability to play out of the back. With Sam and Julie, our center back pairing is as good as, if not the best tandem in the league.”
With Johnston likely to miss a portion of the 2016 season due to the Olympic Games, the Red Stars spent much of Friday’s draft bringing in defensive reinforcements. The strategy of planning around international absences paid big dividends for Chicago in 2015 when the team didn’t miss a beat during the World Cup despite losing eight players to the tournament.
While Chicago didn’t have any selections in the 2016 draft until late in the second round, the Red Stars figured out a way to maximize their chances of finding a defensive sleeper by turning their five initial picks into seven with some two-for-one trading in the late rounds.
At the time, it appeared that the Red Stars—being past the “can’t miss” phase of the draft—were simply going to stack up picks in order to bring in as many players as possible. Dames later confirmed that was indeed the strategy.
“I felt pretty comfortable that the players I would choose would still be there, so if people found value in those higher picks and I could bring in more players and give more players a chance and increase our odds of getting somebody that pans out, it made sense to do,” said Dames.
Chicago then used five of those picks on players with center back experience, including Katie Naughton (University of Notre Dame), Sarah Gorden (DePaul University), Adrienne Jordan (University of Northern Colorado), Candace Johnson (University of Missouri), and Ashleigh Ellenwood (University of Arkansas).
And while Dames reiterated that his projected backline at this point is Johnston, Johnson, Short, and Gilliland, he pointed to the upside of his new defenders.
“We have Julie, Sam, Casey, and Arin for our backline and we needed to get some cover,” said Dames. “Katie and Sarah will come in and immediately provide cover and have time to get their feet wet.
“I think Candace has a chance if she comes in and, technically, cleans up a bit. Adrienne is kind of the diamond in the rough because she can do a lot of different things. She can get forward, she can defend, she can play either side. I’m interested to see what we get out of her. Ashleigh, although a forward for most of her life, played center back for a year at Arkansas too. We covered our main needs there and we picked kids that are versatile.”
Chicago’s two other selections were University of Kentucky midfielder Courtney Raetzman and University of Illinois forward Jannelle Flaws—who tallied a school-record 54 goals in her college career.
One advantage that Dames has over his NWSL coaching counterparts at the draft is his intimate knowledge of the country’s youth player pool. In addition to his work with the Red Stars, Dames is the head coach and president of Eclipse Select, a powerhouse club in Northern Illinois. Over the years, that has helped make him aware of players that fly under the radar of other NWSL clubs.
Of the Red Stars’ seven picks this year, five have connections to Chicago-area soccer with two playing for Eclipse as youth players and the other three for rival clubs in the area.
As the draft came to a close, Dames also indicated there are more moves to come for the Red Stars, including a signing to replace retired captain Lori Chalupny. While Dames said Chalupny couldn’t be directly replaced, he expressed confidence that he had found a player to help fill the gap in midfield.
“A player like Lori, you don’t replace,” said Dames. “But we’ve done a deal to have somebody else come in that hasn’t been announced yet.”
Red Stars’ fans have become fond of the phrase, “Win the draft.” Considering its performance once again in 2016, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.