Pressure and opportunity: The tension of betting everything on an NWSL Draft
LOS ANGELES -- The brain trust of the Boston Breakers gathered in an empty conference room of the JW Marriott just over 16 hours before the biggest opportunity the team has had to reverse its recent fortunes.
The plan to collect draft picks, some acquired through the team's own performance, others through shrewd trades (two first-rounders and Megan Oyster picked up from Washington in a deal for Kassey Kallman and Kristie Mewis was particularly impressive) resulted in Boston owning picks one, three, eight, nine and 11 in the 2017 NWSL Draft, along with picks 31 and 38 in the fourth round.
Now it was up to president and general manager Lee Billiard, in conjunction with head coach Matt Beard, to turn this bounty of potential players into the players themselves. The two men joined with marketing director Seve Hirst and communications manager Ryan Wood to finalize all the alternative scenarios. Billiard and Beard would choose the path. It would be Hirst and Wood's job to tell the world about it.
Billiard has soccer in his blood, and the natural consequence of such an affliction is a desire to run a soccer team, but only since November has Billiard graduated from the business side of the Breakers to an operational role. He and Beard spoke as one, and it was easy to hear in their new partnership a continuity that the Breakers sorely need, while a lack of that single vision contributed to several years of disappointing finishes.
By Wednesday night in Los Angeles, that vision manifested itself into a strong preference for how the draft would go the following day.
Laying plans...and planning for the unknown
Pick No. 1 is a paradox. The opportunity that it affords in American sports’ maintenance of parity -- the last shall be first. Boston finished bottom of the NWSL table the past two seasons. But the No. 1 pick is also luxurious. It is utterly within your own destiny, and the entire board is at your disposal. That worked out well for the Breakers, because all they wanted at that spot was Wisconsin midfielder Rose Lavelle.
“Even if [Ashley] Lawrence and [Kadeisha] Buchanan had gone into the draft, we'd still have taken Rose at No. 1,” Billiard said, sitting around the table late Wednesday night. Those two Canadians, already full internationals, signed for rival teams in France over the past month.
“Last year, we didn't have a box-to-box player. The good thing for me about Rose is, she's been outstanding after college; she's done well with the youth national team; she's stood out in those games as well. But watching her, watching the things that she does—the way she can just drop her shoulder and go beat someone—it's important to have a player like that for us.”
“Recap. One, Lavelle. We still think 2 is going to be [BYU forward Ashley] Hatch. Three, [USC midfielder Morgan] Andrews. And then it's going to start getting interesting.”
So Lavelle spent the final evening of her pre-professional life walking around with the knowledge that she'd be the number one pick. That part of the plan was set.
“Recap. One, Lavelle,” Billiard said to his group. “We still think 2 is going to be [BYU forward Ashley] Hatch. Three, [USC midfielder Morgan] Andrews. And then it's going to start getting interesting.”
Getting the No. 1 and No. 3 picks right is especially important for the Breakers. They haven't been realistically competitive for a playoff spot since the inaugural season in 2013, and they have failed to capitalize on previous draft picks. Boston needs to turn things around, and getting this draft right is a hugely important piece to doing that.
In Morgan Andrews, the Breakers knew they had a bookend to Lavelle in the midfield, one with a championship pedigree out of USC. That she was a New England native no longer served as a vital factor, a product of Boston's evolution on the business side allowing the team to focus on performance first and foremost. It isn't like they minded it, of course.
“We're lucky in that Morgan is a local kid, from New England, played her youth soccer in Massachusetts,” Billiard said. “So that covers that base for us. In the history, we've always looked for the local kid later in the draft. For those at the top, it's always about the player. We have a dedicated group of fans, and attendance has increased. This year, we don't have a [Kristie] Mewis, and I fully expect attendance to continue to increase. But if we didn't get Morgan at three, we wouldn't make it about getting a local kid.”
And then, as Billiard said, it got interesting. Five picks passed until Boston could choose again. Assuming it all went right at the top, that was nearly a half-hour to agonize, strategize and hope.
At picks eight and nine, the Breakers had three players they wanted most: Darian Jenkins of UCLA, Ifeoma Onumonu of Cal, and Margaret Purce of Harvard.
Beard made his case for Jenkins to the group, sounding as if he'd already game-planned around her for the upcoming season. She'd missed much of the UCLA season with a broken fibula, but she'd been healing nicely.
“Out of all the players I've watched, in years and years of football, she excites me,” Beard said. “She's got all the tools. Obviously with her, picking her in the first round, we're not looking for something from her straightaway. And we'll communicate that to her. She's more about the latter, backend part of the season, once she's fully fit and comfortable.”
USWNT Top 50
In Onumonu, Beard saw a player capable of adding a new dimension to the Boston attack—one who'd be serviced by the twin midfield prodigies, Lavelle and Andrews, if all went according to plan.
“Last year, we just didn't have that power of pace,” Beard said. He recalled a particular goal he'd seen Onumonu score, and urged Hirst and Wood to make sure it appeared on the team's Twitter feed if and when Boston drafted her. “I've never seen anybody hit a ball like that—like Drogba, bang, over the top.”
Meanwhile, in Purce, the Breakers found themselves ready to make an Ivy League star into a first round pick—something new in NWSL history.
“I know the Ivy League isn't the best league, but it's like in kids football, in the old days, when you give your best player the ball and let her run around; it was comical, no one could get the ball off of her,” Beard said, noting that she'd also played well in an exhibition between Harvard and the Breakers. “She's quick, she's strong, she's got a good brain.”
That left the 11th pick. But the Breakers were already thinking beyond 2017, into a 2018 that promised an expansion draft should NWSL finalize those plans, and a need to guard against losses that come with it.
They'd lined up several potential trades for the pick. Chicago had offered the 12th overall pick, along with a second rounder in 2018, for their eleventh pick, assuming Miranda Freeman, the USC defender, was still on the board.
In this perfect world, they'd keep their final two picks, fourth-rounders, number 31 and 38 in the draft. If they got lucky, they could take Sammy Jo Prudhomme, the USC goalkeeper, as insurance for their current two keepers, Abby Smith and Libby Stout. Otherwise, they'd add local players for the reserve team.
There were other logistical concerns as well. Wood had already started work on the Lavelle press release, and Billiard made sure they had the Lavelle Breakers jersey ready for its moment, held by the franchise player, just hours from this meeting. Scarves would be given to the other, as-yet-unconfirmed picks. Nike had provided jackets.
“And I've got goals from Lavelle we can tweet out through the day,” Hirst added.
Billiard reminded Wood to let the players know, Lavelle first, that they'd be expected to give a short speech. “About a minute on stage. 'Delighted to join the Breakers. Go Breakers.' The end.'”
To Beard, the entire draft idea felt miraculous.
“There's nothing like it,” said Beard, an Englishman entering his second season in charge of Boston. “Where else are you going to go and say, we're going to get four or five players for the back of my team and they don't have a choice? It's crazy. When you [draft] someone, and you haven't spoken to someone, it's like a first date with someone. When I was signing players in England, you'd talk to them first, you'd show then the facility, what your plans are for them, how you see them fitting in. You don't get that opportunity here.”
And just what was that opportunity?
“Personally,” Billiard said, “I think it's the first big step toward being more competitive, building that championship team.”