NWSL Draft 2023: Six standout players to keep an eye on when the new season gets underway – scout report
The start of another year means that it is now only a couple of months until the new NWSL season gets underway, and, as always, the build-up to the campaign commences with the annual NWSL Draft. This year, representatives from all 12 clubs assembled at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, armed with recommendations, statistics, trade plans and scout reports, with each one hoping to secure some of the latest top talent emerging from the college sides and give their teams the best possible chance of improving on last year’s performances.
As ever, there were a good number of names sparking interest amongst fans, with many people mulling over which players their teams might move for, and this tactical analysis will look at six names who stood out as ones to watch and as potential stars of the future. The analysis will look at their individual strengths on the field and will examine what they will bring to their new sides, as well as seeing why their new clubs made the decision to add them to their rosters.
The first player to look at is Michelle Cooper, who will be familiar to fans of international football as she was named in the Best XI at the 2022 Concacaf W U20 Championship, having finished as the competition’s top scorer with eight goals. Her college career has been spent with Duke Blue Devils, where she has been just as important, with her ending up as the College Cup’s joint top scorer in 2022 and demonstrating that she will be a regular on the scoresheet for whichever side picked her.
In the end, that was Kansas City Current, and head coach Matt Potter will undoubtedly be hoping that her natural abilities in front of goal will propel his side to Championship success after they finished as runners-up last time out.
What makes Cooper particularly dangerous in the final third is that she doesn’t tend to operate in the spaces that are most associated with out-and-out strikers, as she instead likes to drop back and play in front of opposing defensive lines and in areas where they can see her.
However, the reason for this is clever, because what she wants to do is to give Radford Highlanders, in this case, a choice to make, with her positioning forcing them to either close her down or hold their line. Each decision has risks and rewards, as moving towards her would leave space open behind them, but holding their line would allow her to receive the ball and potentially have a shot at goal.
The other thing that comes from Cooper playing in these deeper areas is that she can get on the ball more often and help to build attacks, and it is common to see her doing this as she is not a player who likes to stay on the shoulder of opposing defenders and wait for the ball to come to her.
That point is demonstrated in this graphic, which shows her touches during the 2022 college season. Each pink dot indicates an occasion when the ball was in her possession, and what is immediately evident is how much ground she covers and the variety of positions that she gets into. As mentioned, this is a common feature of her play, and Kansas fans should expect her to get on the ball all over the pitch during the coming campaign, with her helping to build phases of play as well as scoring goals.
The other reason that Cooper is so highly rated is because of her abilities when out of possession too. In this case, South Carolina Gamecocks have been forced back into their own third and are now looking to maintain possession, but Cooper has got up the pitch to put pressure on their back line, hoping to force an error.
In this case, Gracie Falla obliges and sends a short pass back towards her goalkeeper, Heather Hinz, but what helps Cooper to react in time and win the ball before Hinz can get there is her anticipation and ability to read the game. Here, that is shown by the fact that she doesn’t get too tight to Falla and leaves herself enough room to change the angle of her run once the pass is made, knowing that that is what will happen, and it is details like this that helped her to find the net on 13 occasions during the Fall season last year.
Therefore, her intelligence and ability to take advantage of opposing mistakes is clear, and Current fans should be excited about watching her at Children’s Mercy Park when the new campaign arrives.
Another new player who will join Cooper at Kansas is Alexa Spaanstra, who has spent her college career with Virginia Cavaliers. Capable of playing as either a left-sided winger or an attacking midfielder, Spaanstra has built up a reputation for being a creative player who can both set up and convert opportunities, with her scoring six times and assisting on four more occasions in the Fall season during 2022, and there is no doubting that she fits in with Potter’s vision for creating an exciting attacking outfit that can challenge on all fronts this year.
The most noticeable thing about Spaanstra’s game is that she never gets tight to opponents, with her instead looking to make the pitch as big as possible for her team. In this case, against Miami Hurricanes, she has taken up a position on the nearside of the pitch and is now able to help her team keep their attack alive, with Miami leaving enough space open on the wings for her to control the ball and pick out a teammate in the middle, thereby setting up a goalscoring opportunity.
She is helped in this by Lia Godfrey, who has been one of the Cavaliers’ main playmakers, driving inside the pitch with the ball and attracting the attention of the defensive line, but this would not lead to anything without Spaanstra being ready to receive the ball and help to turn this promising attack into a shot on goal.
As this graphic indicates, she is not only capable of delivering crosses and can also dribble forwards when required to, keeping the ball for longer periods of play, which shows that she is a well-rounded player who can add a lot to her new team in the final third and who can adapt to different playing styles as needed.
Having the ability to do that will be important at Kansas this season, with Potter now in possession of several exciting attackers and therefore ensuring that he can set his team up in different ways, and that is one reason that they will be a team to watch in 2023.
Spaanstra is not only a player who sits in wide spaces though, with her also demonstrating on multiple occasions that she is capable of dropping back and taking defenders out of position too. In this case, Syracuse Orange’s Kylen Grant has followed the winger and has left space open behind her, which was a mistake here as it was exactly what Virginia wanted to happen, and Godfrey’s run into the area that Grant had vacated gave Spaanstra a way of passing the ball forwards and therefore creating another goalscoring opportunity.
When looking at how this will fit into Kansas’ play in the new NWSL season, what is clear is that Spaanstra will give them an ability to hold onto the ball and to bring different players into the game, such as new signing Debinha, who made a high-profile switch to Matt Potter’s side from North Carolina Courage this winter and who had been previously linked with a move to Arsenal Women. She has shown that she can send in pinpoint crosses and is a threat when in the final third, and her ability to work with Spaanstra and others could be essential in ensuring that she has as big an impact in the Current’s attacks as possible.
Another player worth keeping an eye on during 2023 is Jenna Nighswonger, who has spent her college career with Florida State Seminoles and who has flourished in a creative attacking midfield role, finding the net on four occasions and assisting a further eight goals throughout the 2022 Fall season.
In the Draft last week, it was NJ/NY Gotham who selected her, and there is no doubt that she will be another important piece in the jigsaw that former Houston Dash, Real Betis Féminas and Tottenham Hotspur Women boss Juan Carlos Amorós is putting together at the club as he tries to improve on last season, when they finished bottom of the pile.
Nighswonger most commonly frequents the areas of the pitch just outside the goal area, with her main characteristic being to create chances for others around the final third and keep attacks alive through her wide range of passing.
What makes her successful in this is her composure on the ball, with her often demonstrating fortitude in tight areas and an ability to retain possession when under sustained pressure from opponents. In this case, she has fought off Pittsburgh Panthers duo Anna Bout and Athalie Palomo to get into this position, and the fact that she angles her body to prevent either player from making another attempt to dislodge the ball shows her strength and determination to be as effective as possible for her team.
She doesn’t only pass when in these spaces though, and has been known to shoot at goal too, using her favoured left foot to catch opponents out and give her as good an angle as possible. In this case, she narrowly misses the target, but the fact that she is confident in her own abilities is what attracted Gotham to her, and her 76.1% passing accuracy in the Fall season last year means that she can back up her belief with quality on the pitch.
This graphic illustrates the number of progressive passes that Nighswonger made throughout the 2022 season, and it is immediately clear just how wide her passing range is. With Amorós last season introducing a more direct style of play at Houston and potentially looking to do the same at Gotham, he will no doubt have been looking to add a creative player to his options, having already signed experienced defenders Kelley O’Hara and Kristen Edmonds, influential midfielder Yazmeen Ryan and forward Lynn Williams during the close season, and Nighswonger’s passing qualities and ability to act as a pivot in her side’s offensive play means that she would fit that profile.
Another way in which the midfielder will play a crucial role in her new side’s bid to improve on last season is her ability to create spaces and options when none are initially available. Here, Onyi Echegini is looking to create a goalscoring opportunity but has been faced by a narrow Boston College Eagles defensive line, and the only option available to her is to turn back and to try and find another way through.
However, as the white arrow shows, Nighswonger realises this and makes a run in front of her teammate and across the path of Boston defender Sarai Costello, thereby giving her team a way of keeping their attack alive, and having that ability to identify spaces and keep the pressure on opponents will be just as important for Gotham this season as they try to pose a more significant threat in the NWSL.
Therefore, if her new side are to show that they are turning a corner after last season’s bottom-placed finish, then they will need to use Nighswonger to the best of her abilities, and whether that happens or not will be worth keeping an eye on.
It is not just attack-minded players who caught the eye in the Draft last week though, with plenty of defenders also signed by the league’s 12 teams. One of those was California Golden Bears centre-back Sydney Collins, who was a player being linked with plenty of teams who have been looking for defensive reinforcements. However, it was North Carolina who secured her signature in the end, and there is no doubt that they are a side who will need a better campaign out of possession if they want to break into the playoff places.
What is notable about Collins is that she is capable of defending in different ways, with her demonstrating an aggressive side to her game in that she often comes out to win balls, succeeding in 62.5% of her aerial duels during the 2022 Fall season, but also dropping back and making herself hard to beat when needed to. In this case, the latter is needed, with Anysa Gray working hard to force Stanford Cardinal’s Paige Rubinstein into making an error, but finding it tough to win the ball and seeing it travel closer to her goal area as a result.
It would be easy for Collins to come out and give Gray some help here, but that would mean leaving her position in the defensive line and giving Stanford an opportunity to move the ball around her. This is something that she recognises, and so instead holds her ground and makes sure that, when Stanford look to pull the trigger, she is in the right place to block the effort.
In this case, that proves to be the right decision to make, with Collins blocking the attempted shot and successfully ending the threat, and that shows her intelligence and abilities in her own third, which is why the Courage see her as an important player to have in their squad going into the upcoming NWSL campaign.
However, it is a rarity for her to stay back and be this passive, as mentioned, because she tends to come out more often than not and be proactive around her goal area, and the fact that the majority of her nine shot blocks have come either on the edge of the box or outside it highlights that point.
Therefore, whilst it is good to have a player who is capable of staying back and giving the goalkeeper protection when needed, Courage fans can expect her to dominate aerially and end threats early, and that might help them to improve on their 33 goals conceded last season and to potentially find a way into the playoffs.
When her team regain possession, Collins shows another side to her game, with her long-range passing abilities helping to launch counterattacks from her own third and give her team as strong a chance as possible of catching their opponents out, and the fact that she had an 87.2% passing accuracy shows how she is a good player to get on the ball when operating with these tactics.
North Carolina looked to build out from the back at times last season too, with Republic of Ireland midfielder Denise O’Sullivan proving to be a key player at keeping the ball moving and bringing teammates into the game. However, whilst she tends to have a more defensive role for the Courage, she is seen as more of a creative attacking midfielder for her country, and giving her more freedom to push up the pitch might be something that head coach Sean Nahas considers when his team are struggling to break teams down this season, now that he can rely on Collins to take up the ball-playing role in deeper positions.
Whether that does happen or not, it again shows how the Courage are giving themselves options, which will be important if they want to finish as high up the table as possible.
Another defensive player worth keeping an eye on this year is Brianna Martinez, who mainly plays as a right-back and who has shown throughout her college career with Notre Dame Fighting Irish that she can attack and defend with equal ability. As a result, she was one of the selections made by Racing Louisville in Philadelphia last week, and the early signs are that she will be a perfect fit for their tactics.
When watching Louisville last season, what became clear was that they had a good idea of how they wanted to approach situations where they didn’t have the ball. More often than not, they set up with a narrow defensive line with protection from those in front, most notably rookie midfielder Savannah DeMelo, and the aim was always to force their opponents into moving the ball towards the wings, where it would be easier to block attempted crosses.
As is shown here, Martinez will fit into that style of play without any need to adjust, with her demonstrating here against Santa Clara Broncos that she is capable of getting tight to opponents and applying pressure when needed. In this case, Broncos defender Emma Reeves is left with only one option, which is to send the ball back towards her goalkeeper, and that shows how much of an effect Martinez has in taking choices away from opposing sides.
It has been a regularity to see the right-back press with this intensity during her college career, and the fact that she won 67% of her defensive duels during the Fall season alone last year indicates how she doesn’t often fail when asked to get tight to opponents. As this graphic shows, she made 23 high regains last season and registered 28 counterpressing recoveries (meaning that her interceptions and tackles came just five seconds after her team had lost the ball), and being that effective in the final third when the team is out of possession is not common for a defender.
Therefore, she was what some might call a hidden gem, and it does appear that Louisville have secured a really exciting player for the future and someone who will continue to help them to develop their identity on the field.
When her team has the ball, she is just as effective at getting into the final third and making things happen, with her often in space and looking to create goalscoring opportunities for her teammates. Here, she has possession deep inside Omaha Mavericks’ half and is looking to deliver the ball into the so-called “corridor of uncertainty” (the area where the defenders and goalkeeper leave the ball for each other to claim) and set up a goal.
The fact that she had to negotiate several Omaha players in order to find her teammate, who puts the ball into the net, demonstrates once again the accuracy and precision that has been evident in so many of her individual performances, and it is clear that she will be key to her new team’s progression on the field this season and could be an underrated player that fans will enjoy watching when the new campaign gets underway.
The final player to mention in this scout report is midfielder Sierra Enge, who has spent her college career with Stanford. However, her role is very different to that of the other midfielders included in this list, with Enge’s focus being not on creating goals (she only found the net on one occasion during the Fall season in 2022) but on dominating the central third and on working hard to keep her team in control of matches.
As a result, she attracted glances from several teams for her ability to disrupt opposing play, but it was San Diego Wave, coached by ex-Manchester United Women boss and England captain Casey Stoney, who were the ones to secure her signature.
As mentioned, Enge’s main role is to keep her side in control of matches, and, when they don’t have the ball, that means making tackles, winning duels and then getting into areas where she can offer passing options and provide a link between different areas of the pitch once they have secured possession.
In this case, Oregon Ducks were trying to build an attack by moving the ball around, but Enge’s ability to read what is happening meant that she was able to win the ball back. At that point, it is her composure on the ball that immediately stands out, with her showing a consistent ability to operate in tight spaces and constantly look around her to locate the best passing options, and her 77.5% passing accuracy during the Fall season indicates that she rarely hit a loose pass when in these situations.
Therefore, she will be a key player for San Diego this season when they are looking to break up opposing play and get on the front foot, with Stoney constantly demanding that her players have a desire to press their opponents and regain possession and always think ahead of the other side to ensure that they have the advantage during matches.
Once her team lose possession again, Enge’s focus instantly turns back towards making it as difficult as possible for the opposing side to create any meaningful opportunities. However, this time, with Arizona Wildcats already inside the Cardinal’s third, she can’t look to tackle the ball or make an interception.
Therefore, she instead looks around to identify where the main dangers are, and notices in this case that Arizona have a player available in the middle who could be used as a target to transfer the ball into. As a result, she makes a run back to close that player off, as the white arrow shows, and the fact that she spots this threat early demonstrates once again her awareness around the field and her ability to play a key role in protecting her defensive line.
It is also worth noting that, when she does get back into her own third and receives the ball, she has a strong capability of making long progressive passes up the field to start attacks, with this graphic indicating the number of times that she has played a key role in her side’s transitions and ability to catch their opponents out with quick counterattacks.
The fact that she picked up three assists during the 2022 Fall season indicates that this is not just a case of clearing her lines, as it demonstrates that she makes long passes with a good judgement of where her teammates are and where she can help them to exploit gaps in opposing defences. Therefore, her ability to find teammates in advanced areas of the pitch should not be underestimated and will be something else that the Wave will benefit from as they continue to pose as significant a threat as possible on the field.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at six players who were named in the 2023 NWSL Draft and who were all picked by teams ahead of the new season. The Draft is always an interesting time for fans of the NWSL, as it gives them a chance to see how their teams look to address problems that were highlighted previously and which of the latest crop of talent will be picked up by each side.
All 12 teams will have been working hard over the last weeks and months to identify which of the many players they should go for, with teams of people poring over profiles, tactical ideas and statistics, but ultimately none of them will know if they have made the right selections until the new season gets underway in March. However, what is for certain is that the NWSL is always an exciting league to watch, and, with the quality of players who have been added to the division in the last week, 2023 could be one of the most competitive and interesting seasons to date.