Scouting the Women’s NCAA

Ahead of the 2023 draft, James Nalton looks at some NCAA prospects and the current state of the college market

Until recently the pathway from college soccer to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was a fairly conventional one as far as American sports are concerned. 

Players would finish college and some of them would move into the league, often via a draft system, or get a (usually higher-paid) job in another industry.

The growth of women’s soccer globally in recent years has led to movements towards equality in terms of facilities, working conditions and pay, pulling it closer to the level of other professional leagues and other professional sports.

In the United States, the women’s international soccer teams have long been more successful than the men’s, with four World Cup wins to their name, but only recently have they begun to make steps towards the players’ salaries matching their achievements and standing in professional sport.

A key moment in this was the collective bargaining agreement between the NWSL Players Association and the league in February 2022.

This has led to an increase in players finishing college early to turn pro, or in some cases skipping college altogether.

But, although there are now other options for talented, ambitious soccer players, college remains the major pathway for players to reach the NWSL and the USWNT.

Of the United States 2019 World Cup winning team only Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) and Lindsey Horan had not played college soccer.

This kind of athlete progression in the United States is familiar for distinctly American sports such as football or basketball but is fairly unique in the global game of soccer, where young players are usually spotted at local independent clubs rather than at school or college.

As the NWSL draft comes around once again in 2023, it is a chance for players to make the step up from college to the pros in such a manner. Mock drafts will be mapped out, prospects will be identified, and professional careers will be launched.

Transferlab’s best XI tool can be a good starting point for highlighting some of the better performers in various roles across the pitch during the last 12 months in NCAA soccer. Players can also be searched individually to see if they match a club’s requirements, even if they don’t standout in terms of their over rating.

The best XI from 2022 is shown below. No minimum threshold has been used for minutes played in order to include potential future stars and performers in the next season of college soccer in 2023, even if they are not ready for the pros this time around.

Players can be sorted into various roles with multiple roles available for each position. The highest scoring role in each position has been chosen for this XI to identify standout players, and a 4-3-3 formation has been used as it provides a good mix of wingers, strikers, playmakers, and three different types of midfielders.

Amanda West is the highest scorer overall and ranks well for all left-wing roles, but she only played 354 minutes in the previous 12-month period and suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in September.

The all-time top scorer in the Pittsburgh Panthers women’s soccer program will be hoping a fifth year at college in 2023 will allow for a full recovery and a return to fitness and form. West’s record of 39 goals and 22 assists in 51 games for the team speaks for itself.

Transferlab picks the 21-year-old Canadian forward out as the highest-rated player in the previous 12 months with a score of 93 when using the wide playmaker profile, but her game is very much about goals as well as assists.

On the opposite wing, Chelsea Domond, is rated 88 by Transferlab using the classic winger profile. She is also the highest-ranked winger in the other available roles of wide playmaker and all-round right-winger, but this particular filter gives the highest score.

The 23-year-old Syracuse forward from Stamford, Connecticut, likes to drive at her marker and has the ability to finish once past them and into the area, registering five goals and five assists in 13 starts in 2022.

She is eligible to represent the country of her parents’ birth, Haiti, at international level and is registered for the 2023 NWSL Draft.

In the backline, several full-backs, or outside backs as they are sometimes known in college, stand out when the profile for that particular position is set to attacking. Left-back Relly Ladner was limited to appearances off the bench for Dartmouth but assisted two goals in a 7-0 win against Colby Sawyer in her only start.

Icelandic left-back Áslaug Gunnlaugsdóttir, who can also play on either wing, is already capped at international level and has played for Breidablik back home in Iceland. She started 11 games for Harvard Crimson in 2022, scoring three goals and notching six assists.

Two of those goals were scored in one game against TCU in September, and demonstrate her left-foot prowess when cutting in from the right.

On the other side of the backline, Olivia Smith of Brigham Young University impressed in her 21 starts in 2022 — and has done since she arrived in the team. A season earlier she managed a hat-trick of assists in a game against Ohio State

In the middle of the park, attacking midfielder Hannah Bebar of Harvard Crimson ranks highest among all the different roles, and does so for both the attacking playmaker and second striker profiles.

This begins to paint a picture of a creative player who can also score goals from midfield. In 13 games in 2022 (11 starts) she scored six goals and made eight assists, registering a goal or an assist in all but two games.

Bebar was nominated on the 15-player shortlist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given to that year’s best player, and was named in the United Soccer Coaches All-America Team for 2022. The metrics below show her creative strength highlighted via passes into the box, through balls, and overall pass accuracy.

Raegan Kelley of Vanderbilt plays in a similar position and scores well on Transferlab thanks to eight goals and ten assists in 21 starts last season.

At the business ends of the pitch roles for shot-stopping (goalkeepers) and goalscoring (strikers) give the best scores.

Tori Dellaperuta scored four goals in 658 minutes in her freshmen year at UNC and is one to look out for in the future having also played in Serie A for Pomigliano C.F.

Behind Dellaperuta in the list is a player who appeared regularly throughout the season and will be familiar to college football followers. Trinity Byars of Texas was shortlisted for the MAC Hermann Trophy and was named in the United Soccer Coaches All-American team and the Best Starting XI in 2022. 

Byars scored 17 goals in 21 starts so it’s easy to see why the Richardson, Texas native is highlighted in the goalscoring profile, but she scores slightly higher (82) when the filter is changed to all round striker, so she’s not just all about the goals.

Between the posts, Cypriot goalkeeper Georgia Katsonouri of Evansville has played limited minutes but shows up well in TransferLab and has been called up to the Cyprus squad in the past. Jordan Brown had a run of games towards the end of 2022 for the University of Georgia, keeping five clean sheets in eight games, while 6ft stopper Samantha Estrada conceded just four goals in nine games in a similar run towards the end of 2022 on her comeback from multiple injuries.

Due to the sheer number of teams and players, there are plenty not mentioned, but Transferlab does a good job of highlighting some under-the-radar players as well as those who might be familiar with followers of soccer at this level. 

It is worth remembering that these scores and the ones shown on the Best XI screenshot are calculated by comparing players to all other players in their respective roles, including professional leagues, indicating that those ranking highly could have a good chance of stepping up to the pros.

Some college players born outside the United States have already played for clubs in their home countries, and even at international level, while many of the US-born players already represent the USWNT at youth level. 

Despite the welcome increase in the number of options open to players looking to progress to professional women’s soccer, the NCAA route still provides a pathway to improvement, using facilities that can be of a relatively high level as far as women’s youth soccer facilities and coaching are concerned, even when taking into account the progress the game has made in this area in recent years.

Canadian international Olivia Smith said of college soccer in Pennsylvania, “I chose Penn State because of the amazing coaching staff and team they have here. The coaches have a clear vision of where they want to be and how they are going to get there.” 

Smith continued, “Coach [Erica] Dambach played the ultimate role in my decision to transfer to Penn State. Her knowledge, intensity and experience are factors in which I know will allow me to develop in the environment to reach the level I want to be at. With that being said, they have the facilities to do so.”

As Smith highlighted, facilities and coaching are crucial, especially in the women’s soccer; they are an area that needs to grow with the game but haven’t always done so. At the college level, work still needs to be done, but in theory, it should be an environment where equality can be achieved across sports and across men’s and women’s teams. It’s not always the case, though, so it’s something that needs to remain at the forefront of the minds of those involved at college, professional, and international levels.

This will help NCAA soccer teams remain a viable option for players looking to progress, and remain a source of talent for professional clubs. They provide young sportspeople with a natural way into the game combined with an education and an experience alongside their soccer development — something that is fairly unique in the world of soccer, and still to be encouraged even as the game becomes more commercial.

Header image copyright IMAGO/ZUMA Wire/Scott Coleman

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