NWSL: Free (And Not So Free) Agency Is Underway


The next phase in the building of the National Women’s Soccer League is underway as the first free agency period began as of Friday.  The details (taken from other news sources and yesterday’s Twitter chat):

  •  The signing period runs until Thursday, January 31
  • Each team can sign up to 4 players not currently allocated to any NWSL team (the WNY Flash, with one less allocation, can sign five players)
  • A maximum of two free agents can be international (non American/Canadian/Mexican) players
  • On or about February a supplemental draft will be held for all teams to select 7-8 additional players to fill out / compete for roster spots

Some thoughts:

  • Some players/teams certainly had talked prior to the start of the period; agreements had been rumored on the web for a few days and many are already being announced
  • The limits on free agency are no doubt in place to ensure a sense of competitive balance and fiscal restraint – both of which are valid concerns in the beginning of a new league
  • Free agency may be more urgent  to the players to seek the best possible situation prior to the unknown of the supplemental draft

In my opinion, those players that are at the skill level of the #4 FA spot will be very eager to reach agreements with teams that will best suit their personal situations (location of the team, depth of the roster) in the open signing period rather than face the uncertainty of the supplemental draft.

Aug 27, 2011; Rochester, NY, USA; Western New York Flash midfielder Brittany Bock goes against Philadelphia Independence midfielder Veronica Boquete for the ball during WPS Championship Game at Sahlen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In having the supplemental draft after free agency, the NWSL is facing a situation that is opposite of other sports leagues, but no less intriguing.  In the NFL draft, as the last round winds down it is often in a college player’s best interest not to be drafted, and thus tied to a team that may not be the best fit, versus dropping through the draft and taking a free agency invitation to a team which presents a better opportunity (depth, position scarcity, familiarity, etc.) to succeed.  In the NWSL, those choices are being made on a restricted basis with only four (or five slots) per team.  After that, players will be drafted by teams to add roster depth, which may not be the best situation for a young player.  For example, a goalkeeper drafted to a team who is already set with an established starter and back-up will, barring injury, have little opportunity to play, whereas that same keeper may have been able to sign with a team looking for a strong #2 or even challenge for a spot elsewhere.

This is not to say that talent does not matter.  Certainly, if player X has the ability, she can force her way in the rotation with her skill.  However, on a team with only 20 available roster spots, the opportunity may not arise.  To use another example from another sport, the NWSL version of Jeremy Lin may be out there, but without the unexpected opportunity that came about due to injuries and roster depth, nobody would have known who Jeremy Lin was, and what he could do.  A player drafted to a team with good positional depth may not provide enough quality playing time to make their mark.

As part of the Twitter discussion, the question was raised as to whether or not players in the supplemental draft could somehow decline the team that selected them.  This is an issue that the league must address prior to the draft.  If the draft is to have its desired effect of preserving competitive balance, the selection by a team should be locked in and the player’s rights come under the control of the team that selected them.  If a player chooses not to sign their rights would still be held be the team that selected them for a year, restricting the ability of players to pick and choose where to play, so that Player A drafted by Washington can not simply reuse to sign with them and instead go to Portland.  Those rights could be traded from team to team so thatWashingtonreceives future picks or some other compensation fromPortlandfor the rights to Player A.

Also, another potential drawback to the draft is the economic ability for players to make the move to the team that drafted them.  With a cap on salaries, it may not be financially viable for a player to relocate across country.  No doubt teams will continue to be in touch with players targeted during the FA period, and will be able to gauge their interest in joining the team in advance so a draft pick is not potentially wasted, but looking at an additional 64 players or so may create scenarios where a player is unable to make the commitment.  Although one Twitter participant commented that “I’d assume they would want [to] play if drafted, [because] who wouldn’t if they had a chance [to] be in NWSL,” the possibility exists that a player may not be able to afford to move 2000 miles away for what be the longest shot at a roster spot.

Expect the Twitter-verse to buzz over the next few days as teams reach out to secure their valuable FA slots, and players burn the phone lines and emails trying to secure the job they desire as quickly as possible.

For more information:

A good primer on the FA period, including names – from ProSoccerTalk

The official release –  from US Soccer