For me, the 2018 NWSL draft was the culmination of the last four years (and more) of covering the elite amateur teams in the Washington, DC, area, as half-a-dozen of the players I’d been covering were picked for a shot at going professional. I stopped by the Washington Spirit’s third day of practice, on Wednesday, February 21st, to talk with as many of them as I could.
Head coach Jim Gabarra talked about picking “homegrown” talent. “We’re fortunate to bring that quality of players in who have an attachment to the area or the Reserve team or teams past. It’s always good to give future generations the real true carrot, the pathway to the professional team by showing that we’ll at least give a chance to those we’ve had in as Reserves.”
I asked did he think it made it easier for those with experience with the organization to make the transition. “Yes, I think it does. The psychological part of coming into a pro team or into a national team, if you haven’t ever been there, the first couple of days, the first phase is always difficult. And this way we’ve got players in our DA or on our reserve teams that have been in training sessions with the pro team, so it’s something they’ve gone through. So they get to know you, and the comfort level is a lot higher.”
Andi Sullivan, the top pick, probably needs no introduction. One of the newest national teamers who also helped Stanford to a national championship, she’s expected to be a marquee player for years to come. I first encountered her after a DC United Women’s match in July of 2012, when despite being sixteen years old and still in high school she scored in her first game for them, adding to a total that Becky Sauerbrunn helped with. Unfortunately for me, she was not with the Spirit but with a dubiously timed USWNT training camp.
I should mention that my list excludes Spirit draft picks Rebecca Quinn (Duke, #3 overall, currently up with the Canadian national team) and Mallory Eubanks (Mississippi State, #16 overall/#6 in second round) since they did not play for the Spirit Reserves or any other local team.
Picked #5 was Duke’s Imani Dorsey, who was with the Spirit Reserves for three years – including 2015 when they won the W-League championship – but is now in camp with Sky Blue FC under the tutelage of head coach Denise Reddy, formerly the assistant coach for the Spirit.
The Spirit’s second pick – and the first pick of the second round – was another Blue Devil, Schuyler DeBree, who elected to stay in school and complete her degree rather than participate in training camp. DeBree played for the Spirit Reserves in 2015 and, like Dorsey, helped them to the W-League championship.
The top draft pick I actually talked with was Brittany Basinger, the first pick in the third round and 21st overall. A Penn State product, she was part of the 2015 national championship team and was team co-captain in 2016 and 2017. She played for the Spirit Reserves in 2014 and 2016 but missed 2015 due to an injury. She’s also played on the U-17, U-20, and U-23 national teams.
She was at the Spirit practice but did not participate fully, rather taking part in physical therapy alongside Arielle Ship. I unfortunately neglected to ask her about her physical condition and status. (2018-02-28 update: I’m informed that she has a minor ankle injury that shouldn’t hinder her full participation for much longer.)
I first asked about when she learned she’d been drafted. “I entered my name in the draft and just forgot about it, just knew what was going to happen was going to happen. I was leaving for Peru on a missionary trip the next day, so I wasn’t able to go to Philadelphia. I was in the car with my mom, and my phone was going crazy. It was really surreal. It was awesome.”
I figured her experience with the Spirit Reserves had to help her in the pro camp. She responded, “Playing under [Reserves head coach] KJ [Spisak] over the summer has really helped me. Playing at Penn State has helped me. So I think that everything I’ve experienced up to here has let me just join right in.”
As for how it’s been going so far: “It’s been awesome. They’ve been super-welcoming, introducing themselves, bringing the rookies in. It’s been an incredible experience so far.”
If anyone was going to be picked from last summer’s Spirit Reserves, I figured it would be captain Maddie Huster, and I was right: she was picked 26th (sixth in the third round).
The little sister of current Spirit pro Tori, she played four straight years for the Reserves and four straight years for Wake Forest, captaining the team the last two years and leading them into the second round of the NCAA tournament last fall.
During the draft, she says, “I was actually at home in Cincinnati with my parents. We were just sitting on the couch, and we had put the draft up on the TV, and seeing my name up there was pretty surreal. My mom started crying, and my dad – who doesn’t ever cry – teared up a little bit and just big hugs, big smiles. It was a good moment.”
After four years with the Reserves, she’s very familiar with the Spirit program and is enjoying things so far. “It’s cool. I love this environment. I love this club. It’s great to be back with these girls, and I think it’s definitely been competitive and intense, and the level has been really good so far. ”
I figured I knew her well enough to ask the impertinent question of what she planned on doing if she didn’t make the team, but she demurred. “Trying not to focus on a Plan B, just trying to be in the moment and give my best out there right now. If they like me, they like me. I just really want to be here and be with this club.”
If Huster was no surprise, the Spirit’s next pick was just the opposite: with their final pick, 31st overall and the first of the fourth and final round, head coach Jim Gabarra picked Rachel Moore of Braddock Road and William & Mary. I’d known her for four years as an excellent player but like her Braddock Road head coach Larry Best figured she was the caliber of player who’d find a spot with a European team.
She seemed to feel the same way given how she answered when I asked about draft day. “Well, that’s an interesting story. So I registered for the draft about 7 pm the night before. Then I was in class, and my phone kept going off, and I had no idea what was happening. I looked at it, and I saw, but I had no idea it was going to happen at all. It was a big surprise. I did not expect it in a million years.”
I knew her primarily from playing for the W-League and then WPSL team Braddock Road Stars Elite, which spent one summer as the Washington Spirit Academy. I asked if she had gotten any experience with the pro team that year. “I played against them once during their preseason. They were like on their second two-a-day. I got to play center back on the Reserves team against them, and that was really cool. And it was like, ‘This could be a possibility, maybe.’ So very minimal experience with them, like an hour.”
She was enjoying camp so far but finding it challenging. “It’s been good. Very sore already, on day 3. You know when your warmup is going to 20 on the beep test it’s very different than my school. I mean, some girls can’t get to 20 on my team when they’re actually trying, so when I get here and that’s the warmup, I know I’m not in college any more.”
That led me to ask what it was like for a player like her, who spent her club, high school, and college career being one of the best players on her team, winning a national championship with her age-group club team, being consistently named all-conference, etc., to get here where everyone has that sort of resumé as a minimum. “Yes, definitely, but it makes practice a lot more intense and honestly fun. It makes it more competitive, and that’s what I love.”
I went back to the previous summer and asked about the Braddock Road game where she played goalkeeper (something her coach hasn’t tired of talking about). “Yes, yes, I saved a PK! I will never play again, though.”
“No?” I teased. “You don’t want me to tell Jim you’ve got experience at goalkeeper?”
“No,” she said with a laugh. “Definitely not.”
As previously indicated, I thought I knew her plan B: according to Larry Best, she had an offer to play in Lisbon, Portugal, alongside former Braddock Road teammate Carlyn Baldwin. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she replied. “That’s not what I want to do. I want to stay in the US, whether it’s grad school or this.”
Here’s hoping they don’t have to come up with a Plan B.