February 29, 2024

Ally Sentnor’s life changed forever a few minutes after 5 p.m. Friday, when the Utah Royals made the teenager the No. 1 pick in the NWSL draft. And while it remains to be seen whether it changed for better or worse, the odds are pretty heavily on her side.

The last 10 women selected with the first pick in the NWSL draft— including Angel City’s Alyssa Thompson, last winter’s No. 1 selection — have gone on to play in the World Cup; two were named league MVP during their second seasons.

“It’s incredible the line of players that have been drafted number one, and I’m honestly just so grateful to be a part of them,” said the North Carolina midfielder, who has yet to play a game for the national team.

Doesn’t that track record bring added pressure?

“Oh, definitely. There is pressure,” the 19-year-old acknowledged. “I’ve been learning to enjoy every second and to make sure I’m still having fun playing soccer and not just worrying about the pressure. But there is a little bit.”

Talia Gabarra, meanwhile, is playing with house money. By the time the Orlando Pride selected the Central Florida midfielder with the 56th and final pick of the draft, it was closer to Saturday morning than Friday afternoon and the vast hall at the Anaheim Convention Center, where the draft was conducted, had mostly emptied and Gabarra was asleep at home in Maryland.

Seven of the previous 11 players selected with the final pick in an NWSL draft never appeared in a league match. So Gabarra would exceed expectation just by making the team.

“My college experience, my high school experience, everything going up, nothing has been handed to me,” said Gabarra, not aware she had been selected at all until she checked her phone Saturday morning. “I feel really grateful for that because it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone. And I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves and do the work and earn a spot on this team.”

Gabarra made history just by being selected. As the daughter of Carin Jennings-Gabarra, the outstanding player in the 1991 World Cup, she is the first child of national team player to be drafted into the NWSL.

In many ways, a draft has become anachronistic to the way rosters are built in many leagues other than the NFL. Just 13 of the 40 players on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster and only four of the 17 on the Lakers’ roster were drafted by those teams. LAFC has seen just two of the players it has drafted in six seasons play more than half a dozen games while defender Tommy Meyer is the only Galaxy player drafted in the last decade to have started more than six times .

More often, teams are built through international transfers or signings, free-agent signings or trades, sometimes paid for with draft picks. NWSL is among the exceptions to that rule, with the first six players selected in last winter’s draft playing at least half of their team’s regular-season games as rookies.

That could be changing. The international market for women’s players is heating up with FIFA reporting a record 1,555 transfers involving 500 clubs in 2022, the last year for which numbers are available, a rise of nearly 20% over the previous high set in 2021. Less than 100 of those transfers involved a fee but the $3.3 million that was spent was also a record — and that figure doesn’t include four of the five most expensive transfers in women’s soccer history, which all took place last summer and averaged more than $352,000 apiece.

There has been talk the NWSL might follow that trend by expanding free agency and deemphasizing the draft. League commissioner Jessica Berman conceded Friday that wasn’t out of the question.

“Those are areas that we have discussed,” she said. “We know we operate in a unique set of circumstances because we do compete in a global labor market. So analyzing all of these factors holistically, and doing our best to recognize what the both intended and unintended consequences are of any changes is what we are doing, and will continue to do, as we continue to innovate and grow.”

Translation: The draft isn’t going anywhere for now, which is good news for players like Sentnor, a redshirt sophomore midfielder who decided to enter the draft a week ago. Consider the company she now keeps. Thompson, the last No. 1 pick, got a $1-million contract; Naomi Girma, the first pick in 2022, is U.S. Soccer’s female player of the year; and Emily Fox, the top selection the year before that, signed last week with Arsenal, the most successful women’s club in English soccer history.

Sentnor, however, is taking nothing for granted.

“You have to earn your minutes, no matter what,” said Sentnor, one of a record three teenagers drafted in the first round. “Every player is on an even playing field [so] I’m going to work my butt off.”

So is Gabarra, because if Sentnor has nowhere to go but down, she has nowhere to go but up. The same could be said of Brigham Young’s Laveni Vaka, who was a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy — college soccer’s version of the Heisman — yet wasn’t taken until the penultimate pick in the draft, going to expansion Bay City FC.

“It was really disheartening. You get caught up in these mock drafts, all these accolades. I didn’t expect to go this late,” said the senior defender, who showed up at the convention center with more than a dozen family members and was the first player across the pre-draft red carpet, then had to wait nearly five hours to hear her name called.

“Everything happens for a reason” she said. “Where I go is where I’m meant to be.”

Vaka burst into tears after being selected and needed several moments to gather herself before speaking with reporters. But the Bay Area native and San Francisco 49ers fan took solace in the story of her team’s quarterback, who was the final pick in the 2022 NFL draft and this year led the team to the best record in the NFC.

Brock Purdy situation,” she said. “Same thing. So that’s definitely going to motivate me.”

Angel City had just three picks, taking Alabama senior midfielder Felicia Knox with the ninth pick of the third round; trading $15,000 in allocation money to Utah to select St. John‘s midfielder Jessica Garziano, a graduate student, with the second pick of the fourth round; then landing Princeton senior defender Madi Curry of Rancho Santa Margarita seven spots later.

The only two UCLA players chosen Friday went in the first 10 picks, with Reilyn Turner (Laguna Beach High) going to Racing Louisville at No. 6 and teenager Ally Lemos (San Dimas High) going to the Orlando Pride three selections later. Zoe Burns, taken by Utah with the first pick of the third round, was the only USC player drafted.

North Carolina had six of its players drafted Friday, with Sentnor and teenage teammate Savy King (Agoura High) going 1-2.

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