On January 12 in Los Angeles, the National Women’s Soccer League held its fifth NWSL College Draft, kick-starting the professional career of 40 players, all with big dreams that most likely include playing with the U.S. Women’s National Team.
As the USA begins its long road towards qualification for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, head coach Jill Ellis continues to emphasize the importance of watching players and deepening the player pool. While the platforms her and her staff are using to scout this array of new talent ranges from Youth National Teams, to college to players overseas, the importance of the NWSL has taken center-stage.
A Chance to Be Seen
For many reasons, having a domestic professional women’s league in the United States is a tremendous asset for both coaches and players. It allows the U.S. WNT coaches to observe a large pool of players in a competitive environment on a consistent basis. It gives the players focus, the ability to continuously train and the opportunity to play full 90-minute matches while facing some of the best players in the world.
U.S. WNT newcomer Lynn Williams and co-captain & two-time FIFA Women's Player of the Year, Carli Lloyd
“We’ve always communicated with NWSL coaches about players and we watch as many games as we can,” Ellis said. “As we don’t have a world event in the middle of this NWSL season, it will allow us to be even more connected to the league and at this time in the cycle, getting to watch these games and these players is extremely important.”
For the more established players in the WNT, the NWSL is a valuable place to sharpen their skills and show Ellis they’re putting in the effort and producing the performances to keep earning spots on one of the most competitive teams in international soccer. For the newcomers and those just breaking into the league, the NWSL is a chance to be seen, to spark the interest of Ellis and her staff and show that they’re deserving of an invite to a WNT camp.
As Ellis has made deepening the WNT player pool a high priority, several NWSL players have recently been given a chance to test their mettle within the National Team environment. Last October, Ellis called 11 uncapped players to camp which included eight from the NWSL in Danielle Colaprico (Chicago Red Stars), Lynn Williams (NC Courage), Kealia Ohai (Houston Dash), Shea Groom (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars), Arin Gilliland (Chicago Red Stars), Merritt Mathias (Seattle Reign) and Abby Dahlkemper (NC Courage). In that group was also two 2016 NWSL draftees in Jane Campbell (Houston Dash) and Ashley Hatch (NC Courage).
Houston Dash's Morgan Brian and Kealia Ohai; Chicago Red Stars' Arin Gilliland & Casey Short
As the league has continued to grow, it’s become even more of a platform. The lesson? Someone is always watching so every game is an audition. Prime examples are Williams and Short who would both tell you that if it wasn’t for the league, they probably wouldn’t be wearing the U.S. Soccer crest today. Both have now earned four caps and are part of this year’s January Camp.
As Ellis resumes the process of evaluating players during January Camp, a handful of new NWSL names have now begun to earn multiple call-ups. Among them are goalkeeper Adrianna Franch of the Portland Thorns, NC Courage defender Jaelene Hinkle, Short, Williams, Ohai, Dahlkemper and NC courage attacker Jessica McDonald and Orlando Pride’s Kristen Edmonds. The latter two earned their first call-ups last November. All these players, except for the injured Dahlkemper, are currently in California at the WNT’s January Camp, hoping to show once again why they belong and should remain on Ellis’ radar. Additionally, Ellis also added first-time call ups Sarah Killion of Sky Blue FC and NC Courage’s Taylor Smith for evaluation during the January training camp.
First time WNT call-up and NC Courage forward, Taylor Smith
This infusion of newer players has brought a different perspective and fresh energy. The new players have had to learn how to adapt and fit into a highly competitive environment while the veteran players have had to elevate their games in the battle for roster spots. It has also brought enthusiasm and healthy competition as everyone understands that nothing is guaranteed. For Ellis, making a roster – for a training camp or a game – won’t come down to a number of caps or World Cup experience, but to performance; to the players who have earned the right to take the field through consistently productive performances.
For these new players that cut their professional teeth in the NWSL, it’s quite literally, game on.