It’s no secret why all six college seniors currently at U.S. Women’s National Team Training Camp went in the first round of the 2010 WPS Draft. They can all play a little bit.
Six young players arrived at Women’s National Team training camp with new clubs, having been taken in the 2010 WPS Draft held on Jan. 15 at the NSCAA Convention in Philadelphia, Pa.
All went in the first round and are anxious to embark on their freshly minted pro careers, but first a three-week training camp looms, as does a chance to earn a coveted spot on the USA’s roster for the Algarve Cup, long one of the favorite tournament destinations for the U.S. team.
With their college athletic careers now over, and all of the players working hard to put the academic part to bed as well (c’mon degree!), their focus now shifts: soccer is their new job. And how cool is that?
Their WPS careers started in Salon 201C of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and truth be told, there wasn’t much drama to the first three picks.
Tobin Heath, the youngest player on the 2008 Olympic gold medal team, went No. 1 overall to the Atlanta Beat, surprising no one in the room nor in the women’s soccer community. Blessed with a unique relationship with the ball, speed and tremendous work rate, Heath has already played 19 times for the USA.
“I had heard rumors that Atlanta was interested in picking me No. 1, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure until draft day,” said Heath. “Truthfully, I was just happy that I didn’t have to decide where I was going. It’s a lot easier when someone decides for you. It was an honor to be chosen number one, especially with the huge amount of talent that came out of our class and just to be among the top draft picks was a very exciting event in my life.”
The Boston Breakers were next on the clock, having traded for the second pick by sending the Philadelphia Independence last year’s #1 overall pick, Amy Rodriguez. Thus, Breakers head coach Tony DiCicco needed some punch up top and got it with UCLA’s Lauren Cheney.
“You can’t really ask for better opportunities than I’ve been given,” said Cheney, a native of Indianapolis, Ind. who has also played 19 times for the senior side. “I grew up in the Midwest, then spent four years on the West Coast and absolutely loved it. Now I get to experience the East Coast and I’ve heard great things about Boston. I’m really excited for this journey and adventure.”
FC Gold Pride, the San Francisco Bay Area’s team, had the next pick, and wouldn’t you know it - 2009 MAC Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O’Hara out of Stanford University was still on the board. O’Hara ran rampant over college soccer defenses in 2009 with most of the destruction coming within a short drive of FC Gold Pride head coach Albertin Montoya, who just happened to have been a volunteer assistant coach at Stanford and who just happens to love players with attacking flair.
Local ties (that’s great for marketing). Check.
Been coached by the coach. Check.
Best college player in the country. Check.
Attacking flair. Double check.
O’Hara goes to FC Gold Pride.
“I think the dream coming true is that I’m able to keep playing soccer and all I’ve ever wanted to do is play soccer,” said O’Hara, who will get to play alongside strikers Christine Sinclair and Tiffeny Milbrett, two of the best goal scorers in the history of women’s soccer. “Everything that’s come with that has been additional blessings in my life and has come from loving the game.”
O’Hara gets the additional benefit of being close to Stanford, giving her the chance to finish her work towards graduation, something not to be taken lightly considering the long history of globe-trotting WNT players struggling to find the time complete their majors.
“I think it will be awesome to play in the Bay Area, well, once I’m done with college,” said O’Hara. “I think it will be the best lifestyle ever. People say there is pressure in the pros and you have to excel every day, but I love soccer and I love the challenges, so I am looking forward to it.”
UNC defender Whitney Engen went next, fourth overall, to the Chicago Red Stars, followed by 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup standout Nikki Washington of UNC to the Los Angeles Sol.
Brittany Taylor, who finished her red-shirt senior season for UConn last fall, was the next young U.S. player to go. Taylor is participating in just her second-ever camp with the full national team, getting the call-up after performing well at a December U-23 camp. The physical defender was taken sixth overall by Sky Blue FC, making her basically a home state pick as the New Jersey state line is just a short drive down the thruway from her hometown of Campbell Hall, N.Y.
The Washington Freedom then took another 2008 U-20 standout in Nikki Marshall from Colorado with the seventh choice. The sublimely skillful Casey Nogueira went next to the Los Angeles Sol, which meant five of the top eight picks are currently training with the USA.
With the ninth pick, the Sol took yet another 2008 U-20 world champion in Kiersten Dallstream out of Washington State. FC Gold Pride took Stanford standout Ali Riley (she’s from Los Angeles but plays for New Zealand) with the 10th pick and then the Breakers took goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher with the 11th and final pick of the first round.
Naeher was brilliant at the 2009 U-20 Women’s World Cup, where she was coached by DiCicco, allowing just one goal in her five starts - and that came in the waning moments of the championship match with the U.S. holding a 2-0 lead over Korea DPR. Naeher is in her second training camp with the full team after becoming just the fifth goalkeeper to win a world title, joining Mary Harvey (1991 WWC), Briana Scurry (1996 Olympics, 1999 WWC, 2004 Olympics), Ashlyn Harris (2002 U-19 WWC) and Hope Solo (2008 Olympics).
Unlike the USA’s earlier picks, Naeher was sweating a bit.
“Definitely, I was really anxious,” said 2009 Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year for Penn State. “I wanted to know where I was going and I was just nervous to see how it played out. I had talked to a couple of coaches and I knew Boston was interested, but I didn’t know for sure what was going to happen. I knew they showed the most interest out of anyone I talked to, but nothing was guaranteed.”
All the players were impressed with the draft show put on by WPS and with Heath, Nogueira, O’Hara and Cheney all great friends from their college and youth national team experiences, it was pretty much a perfect day for the aspiring soccer stars.
“I think the draft was awesome,” said Cheney. “They did a very, very good job. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”
“I was really impressed,” said Naeher. “It was bigger than I had anticipated. It was really a last minute decision to go to Philadelphia, but (her college coach and WNT assistant) Erica Walsh said I should go to have the experience and I’m really glad that I did.”
While the draft is all glitz and glamour, the real work will begin in March when the players join their clubs for pre-season training. That’s when their play on the field will be challenged to match their lofty draft status.
“I don’t feel any pressure because the game doesn’t change, it’s still soccer,” said Cheney. “I wasn’t nervous for the draft, because I think the opportunity to play is what’s most important and I won’t be nervous for the WPS. No matter where I am, I love to play and I’m going to be happy.”
So what happens when the Beat plays the Sol? Or the Breakers face the Gold Pride?
“It will be a reunion,” says Cheney. “It’s just so much fun to be around these girls and compete against them. We all have so much respect for each other as players, so it’s going to be really fun to play against them on the professional level. I won’t be able to yell ‘sick!’ when Tobin does something awesome, but it’s still going to be a lot of fun.”
Let the (WPS) games begin.