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This week's NWSL draft is both an indicator and a catalyst for the transformation ahead

Stanford's Sophia Smith is reportedly a target for the Portland Thorns with the No. 1 pick in the NWSL draft. (Photo by John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Last year was supposed to be the watershed moment for the National Women’s Soccer League. In a Women’s World Cup year amid a backdrop of increasing attention from sponsors, broadcasters and fans, 2019 was supposed to be the moment the still-young league enjoyed a breakout. 

But that never quite happened as the NWSL sorted through plenty of growing pains, even though attendance did rise after the World Cup. Instead, the upcoming 2020 season already looks poised to be the transformational one – and Thursday’s college draft figures to put that into perspective.

Just look back to last year’s college draft: The biggest headline was not the players who signed with their new NWSL clubs, but the players who didn’t. Hailie Mace, the second overall pick, opted to play in Australia and Sweden over concerns that her prospective NWSL club, Sky Blue FC, was too much of a mess. Julia Ashley, selected No. 6 overall, did the same.

Now heading into the 2020 draft, which will be live-streamed online Thursday, the Portland Thorns have made a series of moves to acquire the No. 1 pick, apparently confident they can convince the likes of Stanford’s Sophia Smith or UCLA’s Ashley Sanchez to go pro a year ahead of schedule. A 2020 draft class that didn’t look particularly compelling on paper suddenly offers far more intrigue.

That may be the difference between the NWSL of last year and this year. The likelihood of a draftee snubbing a chance to go pro in the NWSL feels significantly smaller, and it’s a testament to the steps forward the league is expected to take.

New Jersey-based Sky Blue, which holds the No. 3 and No. 4 overall picks, has turned over a new leaf under the leadership of Alyse LaHue, and it’s difficult to imagine another Mace-style rejection. For years, Sky Blue was viewed as a sort of anvil weighing the NWSL down with its subpar facilities and paltry attendance – but for the first time, the team will play all of its home games this year at Red Bull Arena, considered among the gold standard-bearers of MLS stadiums.

Improvements to clubs like Sky Blue FC, like the deal to play home games at Red Bull Arena, have helped change the NWSL landscape heading into this season. (Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Reign FC, who are now officially unattached city-wise after leaving Seattle for Tacoma, were last month sold to Olympique Lyonnais, a women’s soccer powerhouse synonymous with dominance on the field and deep pockets off it. With Lyon’s purchase for a bargain price of under $4 million, another of the NWSL’s independent clubs, which have been a concern as the league looks long-term, became perhaps its strongest club financially.

That’s not to say the league won’t have to confront some of the growing pains lingering from last year. 

The NWSL’s path forward as an autonomous, independent league remains murky now that U.S. Soccer has rejected an ambitious funding request from NWSL owners. U.S. Soccer will run the league for another year and the federation has applied some pressure too: The NWSL owners have to hire an enterprising, assertive commissioner if they want to try to ask for money again.

The clock is ticking for the NWSL owners to get a new commissioner in place before the 2020 preseason kicks off in March, but the path has been cleared away. NWSL president Amanda Duffy, a candidate for the job who has been the de facto commissioner since late 2017, has left the league to work for the Orlando Pride.

Duffy’s departure may be the jolt NWSL owners need to get a strong commissioner in place. Duffy’s track record at the helm was less than impressive, albeit not entirely her fault. The most prominent deal brokered in her time at the NWSL, a flagship Budweiser sponsorship, was actually facilitated by U.S. Soccer, not the NWSL front office. Despite last year seeing a huge attendance boost from the World Cup, the NWSL still failed to find a long-term broadcast partner, sign an expansion team for 2020 or bring in other national sponsors.

With a new commissioner in place and what looks like genuine grassroots momentum at most of the NWSL’s clubs, 2020 may be poised to be a little bit more fun to follow on the field if the league can avoid some of the off-the-field setbacks that have served as major talking points.

A new spending structure that introduces an equivalent to MLS’s targeted allocation money, or TAM, will only add intrigue to how NWSL teams will continue building up for the season. The lack of additional U.S. Soccer funding does raise questions about how many teams will actually utilize the ability to pay players above the spending cap, but with the arrival of Lyon’s pocketbook and reports of the Thorns eying top-shelf international talent, anything is on the table.

Already, Thursday’s draft has served as a trigger point for movement across the league. 

The reigning back-to-back NWSL champions, the North Carolina Courage, traded away McCall Zerboni, a locker room leader, for Mace, who is ready to return to the NWSL after last year’s snub. The Chicago Red Stars, without Samantha Kerr, acquired Kealia Ohai as a new goal-scoring threat. The Portland Thorns look ready for an overhaul, trading away the rights to Caitlin Foord, Midge Purce and 2016’s No. 1 draft pick, Emily Sonnett. 

And there seems to be plenty more ahead. If previous years are any indication, the NWSL draft itself will usher in another round of trades and deals. With the NWSL now having a new mechanism to pay transfer fees, more international acquisitions ought to be coming soon, too.

The NWSL won’t magically see all of its problems disappear in 2020, and important questions about the league’s future will make headlines, as they should. But with signs that clubs on the ground are figuring things out, even if the league front office hasn’t yet, this offseason is a chance for fans to watch the flurry of player moves without worrying about the other stuff. 

That in and of itself would be quite transformational.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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