While I was working on another piece about late round draft picks, I started to notice a pattern with Sky Blue’s draft history. Since 2014, every first round pick they have had has stayed with the team.
Maya Hayes was their pick in 2014 out of Penn State, followed by Sarah Killion from UCLA in 2015. 2016 saw another Penn State player, Raquel Rodríguez, added to the team, and in 2017 a pair of USC defenders, Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman, were drafted. The only first round pick that is currently not on the roster is Lindsi Cutshall. Cutshall sat out 2016 because of medical reasons and in 2017 she welcomed a child. If she did come back to the roster Sky Blue would have each and every first round pick.
Their second round picks have been a bit more hit and miss. Kendall Johnson is still in the league, playing for the Portland Thorns, while both Hayley Haagsma and Kristin Grubka are not currently attached to any clubs. The only second-round pick currently on their roster is Leah Galton, selected in 2016. Galton has been a breath of fresh air on the wings when able to play at 100% and has performed closer to a first-round pick than a second.
Sky Blue has had more third round picks than any other round, with nine in total. Ashley Baker, Michelle Pao, Shade Pratt, and Catrina Atanda do not currently appear on the roster, but the other five do. That’s Daphne Corboz, Erica Skroski, Caroline Casey, Madison Tiernan, and Kailen Sheridan. All have started games, with Skroski and Sheridan being first choices for their positions. With Corboz, it did take a slightly roundabout route, with her going to England rather than joining Sky Blue after the 2015 draft. But when she decided to return to the states, it was Sky Blue who added her to their roster.
Sky Blue have had quite a bit of success finding useful players in the 4th round, though often it’s been to the benefit of other teams. Elizabeth Eddy, Chioma Ubogagu, and Lo’eau LaBonta were all drafted by Sky Blue in the 4th round, but play on other teams. Their other picks include Becky Kaplan–not on an NWSL roster–and their 2017 4th rounder, McKenzie Meehan, who has appeared in seven games, starting two this year.
But round by round can only tell us so much. The coach for the first three years, Jim Gabarra, left in 2016 to join the Washington Spirit. That left former assistant coach Christie Holly to take over. Turnover at the top means that Sky Blue’s drafts haven’t all been run by the same people at the top. That said, Tony Novo has been the GM for Sky Blue since the winter following the 2013 season, offering a bit of consistency even as the coaches have transitioned.
Still, if you divide the tenures, it becomes clear just how good a job Christie Holly has done. Of the 10 players selected under his watch, only one is currently excluded from the club’s roster. And that one, Catrina Atanda, is still in the practice pool.
Compare that to Gabarra’s tenure, from which only three out of 14 picks are still on the roster. Of course, the further back in time you go the more chance there is for players to move on. And the three still with the club (Maya Hayes, Sarah Killion and Daphne Corboz) are all fantastic players. But the defining feature of Holly’s tenure has been his ability to pick up up the Madison Tiernans or the Erica Skroskis of the world–good players, but not considered to be draft standouts–and turning them into solid, dependable players who can start for a playoff contender.
And having someone who can put together consistently strong drafts is a big deal. Drafting takes more than just identifying talent. It means creating a game plan focused on both tactics and club culture, and identifying how well players coming out of college might be expected to fit into that plan. That’s not something every club has. Even very successful coaches (looking at you Tom Sermanni and Laura Harvey) seem to be unwilling or unable to do what it takes to put together a strong draft.
Holly is doing more than just putting together a good 18 to 20 players for his roster. He is looking for players that will grow a culture that is very much “play for the player beside you, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” that has paid off with a team in 3rd place at close to the halfway point of the season.
Rory Dames, long held to be the NWSL’s King of the Draft, finally has a worthy challenger.