Bonmati, Wiegman, Earps named FIFA Best honorees — Recapping the NWSL draft

The IX: Soccer Monday with Annie M. Peterson, Jan. 15, 2024

The FIFA Best Player of the Year award Monday afternoon went to Spain’s Aitana Bonmati.

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“I’m proud of being part of a powerful generation of women who are changing the rules of the game, and the world.

Sarina Wiegman, coach of England, was honored as FIFA best women’s coach. She took the opportunity to thank coaches who are not on an international stage.

“We are visible. And there’s so many coaches and teachers that are not visible like we are, and they give the opportunity to young girls and boys, and create an environment to let them play football and give them inspiration and motivation to be the best they can be, whatever level that will be,” Wiegman said.

England’s Mary Earps was named Goalkeeper of the Year.

“I had to wait a long time for this kind of success. But I think looking back now, it makes total sense. Everything I went through — I mean, we’re all humans, we all have struggles, right? But it just made me feel so much more prepared to the challenges I face today, and to be able to enjoy these moments so much more and realize how pretty unbelievable they are and never to take a single day for granted. So if you’re struggling, if you’re going through hell, keep going. It’s never too late to be exactly who you are,” Earps said.

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Here is the FIFA/FIFPRO Best XI:

Goalkeeper: Mary Earps (Manchester United, England)

Defenders: Lucy Bronze (Barcelona, England), Olga Carmona (Real Madrid, Spain), Alex Greenwood (Manchester City, England).

Midfielders: Aitana Bonmati (Barcelona, Spain), Ella Toone (Manchester United, England), Keira Walsh (Barcelona, England).

Forwards: Lauren James (Chelsea, England), Sam Kerr (Chelsea, Australia), Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave, USA), Alessia Russo (Manchester United/Arsenal, England).

Not gonna lie, teared up at the Marta tribute.

The NWSL held the 2024 draft on Friday night at the Anaheim Convention Center, in conjunction with the United Soccer Coaches Convention. But before the event, which was broadcast on ION, NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman spoke to the media.

Berman covered an array of topics, including the successes of 2023 — namely the $60 million media rights deal, record attendance and Gotham’s surprising run from last place in 2022 to the league championship in November.

Berman also looked to the future, saying she expected that the process to pick a 16th team would take six to nine months, with an announcement potentially coming in the third quarter. The process was launched after the championship game. She said the league is currently in talks with “many different groups from many different cities.”

The new franchise would join Boston in beginning play in 2026. Some of the candidates include Minnesota Aurora FC in the USL W League, which submitted a bid for a team in 2022. Bay FC paid a $53 million franchise fee, so that could be a barrier for the community-owned team. Nashville and Philadelphia are other possibilities.

Current MLS teams could jump in with bids, including Austin FC and Atlanta United. Executives of both teams have expressed interest in the past. And Austin has hosted USWNT games.

Also of interest during Berman’s news conference was the future of the college draft. Now that players can go directly to the pros from high school, coupled with the rise of a global market – is the college draft necessary?

“I think what I can say about that is what we’ve learned and observed in recent months, and probably over the last year or so, is that there’s been a leveling up of the game globally that is serving as a forcing function for us to really embrace and recognize that we compete in a global landscape for talent. And with that comes a lot of analysis about our approach and our policies in the best ways that we can compete for that talent. I know that it’s been established internally at our league, and validated by our board, that it is our stated vision to be the best league in the world. And we’ll continue to evaluate the ways in which we can compete and work closely with our player association to assess all of the mechanisms and levers that we can pull, to both embrace and lean into the areas where we are different and have differentiators — parity, competitive balance, investment, and all of those areas — as well as think strategically about shifts that we may want to make in the future that allow for us to compete in more meaningful ways.”

On a related note, Berman addressed whether a robust academy system and a homegrown player rule, similar to that of MLS, is in the league’s future.

“There are a bunch of clubs that are very interested in figuring out the most strategic ways to build academies or invest in youth. We also have to recognize that the culture of our country is quite different than Europe. We live in a world where entrepreneurial interests control the youth system. We have to find ways to work with the systems that exist, as opposed to being a force that is disruptive just for the sake of being disruptive.”

Among Berman’s other points: The league re-brand (read: a new logo) is targeted for 2025, and details are in the works about a direct-to-consumer way to watch matches not available via a broadcast partner.

A few hours later, the draft was held. More than 200 players were eligible and over four rounds, 56 players were selected by the league’s 14 teams.

The Utah Royals, with the first pick, selected Ally Sentnor out of North Carolina. She was the ACC Midfielder of the Year.

Another North Carolina product, Savy King, went to Bay FC with the second overall pick.

The NWSL was kind enough to provide a full list of the draftees here!

There were also a pair of big trades involving the Washington Spirit on draft day.

The Spirit sent defender Sam Staab to the Chicago Red Stars in exchange for Chicago’s first round pick (No. 3). With it, the Spirit selected Georgia midfielder Croix Bethune, the SEC tournament MVP.

The Spirit also sent USWNT player Ashley Sanchez to the Courage in exchange for North Carolina’s first round pick (No. 5) and $250,000 in allocation money. The Spirit took midfielder Hal Hershfelt out of Clemson with the pick.

Let us mourn for a second the breakup of Sanchez and Trinity Rodman.

On to the links!

Kevin Baxter with the LA Times wrote about No. 1 pick Ally Sentnor.

Jackie Gutierrez for Forbes on the Reign’s fresh start in 2024.

Washington Spirit score Jonatan Giraldez as new coach, from

Ali Krieger joins CBS Sports

Reign sign Bethany Balcer to a contract extension

Interesting story from Steph Yang of The Athletic on the improvements the NWSL is making in sports medicine.

CBS Soccer’s Sandra Herrera on the Chicago Red Stars’ rebuild

Just Women’s Sports speculates about the new head coach for Chelsea.

The Kansas City Star with Vlatko Andonovski’s plans for the Current

Jeff Kassouf’s take on the college draft for ESPN.

The Equalizer’s Dan Lauletta explains the Spirit’s moves.

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Here’s are some of Jessica Berman’s remarks at the NWSL Draft:

“It’s an incredible moment to reflect on where we are and how far we’ve come. Obviously, we’re all here today because we are welcoming 56 young athletes to our league who have worked incredibly hard to get to this moment and I know I’m excited for this evening. Actually the draft has always been a night where in sports you can watch families celebrate the incredible efforts of their children throughout their lives and see them realize their dreams. So we’re excited for tonight.

Before I talk a little bit about the upcoming 2024 Season I’d like to talk a little bit about and reflect on my 2023 because it was really a transformational year for the NWSL and I think for women’s soccer globally. few highlights from this past year first and foremost, as we think about the priority of resetting the distribution and discovery of our games on broadcast where sports fans consume live sports, we all know that we announced the championship our new media deal with four media partners, CBS, Amazon, ESPN and Scripps. And that the value was really right size to demonstrate the value of our product and our game, in that we increased by 40 times our last deal and have an investment of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over four years, which is really incredible and I think outsized anyone’s expectations about what we can achieve.

In expansion we increased the value of investment by more than 10 times, franchise value, and we’re looking to build on that in our next round, which has already begun. We celebrated the new champions in Gotham and we all know that one of the superpowers of the NWSL is our competitive balance and parity. Thirteen points separated the top and bottom team, and Gotham went from last place to first. I think Esther’s comment following the championship was probably the best way to sum up what our superpower really is, which was something like every match in the NWSL is like playing a Champions League game. And we’re really proud of that and it’s something that we continue to covet and protect.

As we think about fan growth and engagement, all of our viewership metrics on both CBS and Paramount Plus were up last year. And attendance as we all know and we shared at the championship, our regular season average was more than 10,000 per game. That is also one of our superpowers in that not only do we have competitive balance, but when you attend any market, any given game, there’s much closer parity in terms of fan engagement and attendance in stadium.

As we turn to why we’re all here today for the draft like most professional sports leagues, it’s an opportunity to convene key constituents and stakeholders. And so over the last several days, we’ve been hosting league meetings and just want to highlight that because it’s part of our efforts to professionalize the NWSL and really level up the ways in which we engage with our internal stakeholders. We hosted technical staff meetings for all of our clubs, where we created an open forum for questions and discussions and sharing policies, practices and protocols to make sure that all of our clubs, understand expectations and ideate around innovations for the future of the game. And we also hosted what I believe may be the first ever professional sports league convening of a safeguarding summit, where we brought in subject matter experts to talk about systemic reform, and to proactively provide the tools and resources to those who are on the ground closest to the players and the technical staff to make sure that everybody has the tools and resources to show up and actually provide the kinds of safe, positive environments that we all expect. When we encountered some our history and the challenges in the past, we learned that there was no playbook, in terms of how to create a best in class league, in the policies, protocols and procedures that are offered to players and technical staff. We believe we’re setting the standard and we continue to create an open source playbook so that other leagues, both men’s and women’s, can learn from our experience and we can help our entire industry ecosystem to be the best it can be.

As we turn to 2024, we are launching with two new teams and we’re very excited to welcome Bay FC and to bring back the Utah Royals this season. Which will be kicking off on March 15, with the Challenge Cup on Amazon and we’ve announced that, based on the standings of last year, San Diego will be playing Gotham on March 15. And that will be the beginning of our 2024 season.

Other key highlights that we’re excited about: First and foremost, I think one of the primary stories that I hope will remain a focus and thread, not just domestically but internationally is the investment in infrastructure that we’re seeing around our league. We know that for the 2024 season, the Kansas City current are opening the first ever purpose built stadium for women’s soccer. And I know I’m really excited to be there. I’ve visited I think four times since the groundbreaking and the progress they’ve made in such a short period of time, the key buy-in that they have from all stakeholders, public and private, is really unprecedented and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in in any market in my 25 years in professional sports. We also know that there’s incredible investment forthcoming for training facilities. With the transaction of the Portland Thorns, they have a commitment to building a purpose built training facility in Portland. We have commitments from Bay FC and Boston to build a training facility for their NWSL teams and a lot of other research and ideation around other markets to figure out the ways that we can ensure we’re providing the most professional environment for our players to both train and play.

I think we also know and we’ve seen and this will continue to unfold in the coming days, that we increased our salary cap by 40% to 2.75 million. And we really are seeing the investment flow not just into the infrastructure of the league and facilities and staffing, but also to the players and we’re really proud of that. We’ve increased pathways for youth to come directly into the league doubling the number of our u-18 teen permitted players. I think with all of that we’re incredibly excited about the upcoming season. And we’ll be looking to engage with all of you to help us to share all of the best stories about our players and our great game.

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Written by Annie Peterson