Expansion Dash get defensive
The National Women's Soccer League's newest team now has enough players to play a game, at least in theory. Friday's expansion draft allowed the Dash to select 10 players left unprotected by the league's original eight franchises. So where do things stand for Houston and the rest of the league as next week's college draft approaches?
What it means for Houston
Teams can't beat what they can't score on. And while we may not be looking at a spring and summer of shutouts, that did seem to be at least an aspirational theme of the new franchise's first full week of personnel moves. Houston has the framework of a lineup that will make opponents work for goals.
That makes sense. Proven defensive talent was more readily available than attacking talent in the expansion process, and for all of the goals coach Randy Waldrum's Notre Dame teams scored over the years, they also regularly finished in the top five nationally in goals-against average. At heart, he is not a riverboat gambler.
On paper, a team with Erin McLeod in goal, Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen, Lauren Sesselmann and Ari Romero across the back line and Becky Edwards and Brittany Bock patrolling the midfield is a feast of stingy. Bock, Edwards, Klingenberg, Romero and Sesslemann were among the team's 10 selections in Friday's draft. Taking that team from paper to the field may be the challenge.
Acquiring McLeod from Chicago for previously allocated fellow Canadian Melissa Tancredi before the draft gives Houston a proven NWSL goalkeeper from the first day the team steps on the field. One problem is that neither Engen nor Klingenberg, the team's two United States allocations, will be in front of her. Both will join Houston only after they wrap up European commitments. That may or may not still be sooner than Sesselmann arrives. A key cog in Kansas City's defense, Sesselmann is the subject of numerous reports that suggest she intends to play overseas this year.
And while Edwards, 25, should at some point become one of the franchise's cornerstones as a defensive midfielder, she will begin the season only about 10 months removed from ACL surgery.
Houston isn't nearly done putting this thing together, but Friday offered a reminder that even in a league just two years old, catching up as an expansion team isn't easy.
What it means for the rest of the league
1. Kansas City comes out relieved. The trade that sent McLeod to Houston shortly before the expansion draft made life considerably easier for Kansas City, which had to leave one of U.S. allocations Nicole Barnhart, Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez or Becky Sauerbrun unprotected in the draft. But there still had to be anxiety in the front office about leaving Barnhart, the reigning NWSL goalkeeper of the year, free for the choosing. It would have been extremely Machiavellian for Houston to then take Barnhart in hopes of stockpiling trade chips, but it was possible. Instead, Houston took Sesselmann and her uncertain future, and Kansas City keeps its stockpile of U.S. national teamers.
On top of that, we then learned that Kansas City holds the NWSL rights to Sarah Hagen. Hidden from view for most fans in this country, first in college at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now professionally in Germany and behind the Sydney Leroux-Alex Morgan-Christen Press logjam on the national team, Hagen is a heck of a potential asset down the road.
Kansas City took a big hit when it lost Desiree Scott to Notts County in England. Sesselmann is another hit. But Friday could have added considerably more pain than it did.
2. Portland's gambit worked. The defending champs didn't lose unprotected defender Rachel Buehler, just as Portland owner Merritt Paulson's suggested in a tweet to Oregonian writer Jamie Goldberg that was later deleted. Assuming it was nothing more than an exercise in game theory, Portland still has Buehler because its other offerings were too tempting. Had Houston taken Buehler, Edwards and Meleana Shim would have been off the table. Instead, Houston gained two players it can use immediately and left Buehler alone. And with Amber Brooks arriving this season and Allie Long emerging as such a strong presence last season, Portland still has no shortage of midfield talent.
3. Another shoe to drop. Only one team emerged from the expansion draft with its roster intact, and it wasn't for a lack of appealing talent. Despite making both Angela Salem and Estelle Johnson (42 combined starts a season ago) available to a Houston team already building through defense, Western New York didn't lose either of those two or anyone else. As Equalizer's Dan Lauletta was perhaps the first to note, connecting the dots suggests more news and more moves to come.
4. Whither Kelley O'Hara? Perhaps this ought to fall in the same category as Portland keeping Buehler, but it was surprising both to see Sky Blue expose O'Hara to the expansion draft and almost as surprising to see Houston pass on the young player who was a regular at outside back for the national team before ankle surgery last August. Now as the Women's World Cup nears and she presumably tries to get back in the mix for the United States, will Sky Blue play her on the back line or again put the former Hermann winner at forward?
What it means for the college draft
Houston was awarded the No. 2 pick in the college draft on Jan. 17 and will pick at the top of each of the remaining three rounds. With a deep talent pool available, including most of the players who helped the United States beat Germany and win the 2012 Under-20 World Cup, those are nice cards to hold.
Assuming Crystal Dunn is the No. 1 pick, and there should be an investigation if she isn't, legitimate cases can be made for several players as the second-best option in the draft. That said, it's difficult to make a case for anyone as a better fit in Houston than Kealia Ohai, Dunn's teammate for the past four seasons at North Carolina.
Let's start with the superficial; Ohai has local ties as the sister-in-law of Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the new franchise to have one of the city's higher profile athletes, who has already shown his support for the new team, vociferously in its corner. But that's a fringe benefit, not a reason to draft someone, especially with so much talent available. Goals are a reason.
Houston didn't emerge with from the expansion draft with a lot of proven league-class, let alone world-class, goal-scoring talent. Picks Danesha Adams, Ella Masar and Tiffany McCarty played a lot of minutes a season ago, and all things considered, they bring a good mix of depth and potential to their new team. But they also combined for eight goals in 2013.
Ohai wasn't a prolific goal scorer on the level of her draft class peer Maya Hayes, or even Katie Stengel, if you prefer a true ACC-for-ACC comparison. Her best season by counting stats came when she scored 14 goals in 24 games as a freshman. But to watch her on a regular basis was to come away impressed, Her pace, work rate, character, ability to strike from distance and experience at the youth international level should all translate to the next level. She is going to score goals as a pro.
Ohai makes a lot of sense for Houston. At the same time, the Chicago Red Stars, picking third and fourth, should be thrilled if both Santa Clara jack-of-all-trades Julie Johnston and Illinois midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo are still on the board for them. The question is, does Chicago have to choose between Johnston and DiBernardo, who along with Dunn are the players in the draft who have been capped for the United States? Or with Christen Press aboard once her European commitments conclude, and assuming Johnston isn't immediately slotted in the back line (where she played superbly for the United States in the U-20 World Cup), can they use the picks to build the midfield? Hayes or Ohai would be the logical choices if they preferred to use at least one of the picks on another pure goal scorer to play off Press when she arrives.
Ten more names to know next Friday: Aubrey Bledsoe, GK, Wake Forest; Cloee Colohan, MF, BYU; Nkem Ezurike, F, Michigan; Amanda Frisbie, D/F, Portland; Holly Hein, D, Michigan; Kassey Kallman, D, Florida State; Mandy Laddish, MF, Notre Dame; Morgan Marlborough, F, Santa Clara; Tesa McKibben, F, Saint Francis; and Kelsey Wys, GK, Florida State.
There doesn't seem to be as much buzz about Wake Forest's Stengel as some of her classmates, which is curious given how consistently she scored goals in the nation's toughest conference against defenses that focused so much of their efforts against her. She missed the second half of her senior season because of blood clots in her leg, so health will be a concern, but Stengel is too driven and too technically sound to ignore. If she indeed slips out of the first round, teams will regret it.