NWSL 2021: Team Rankings and Draft Needs

Christine Sinclair

Portland Thorns’ Christine Sinclair celebrates her 2020 Fall Series hat trick. Photo by Nicole Flores.


by Grant Wiedenfeld 

So let’s pretend that the 2021 soccer season will proceed normally, shall we? That way we can address the usual beginning-of-the-year questions like “Which teams are in the best position to take advantage of the Olympic window?” and “Who needs to draft a goalkeeper?” Below is an overview of each club’s current roster and potential draft needs (all draft picks noted are as of January 5), with my 2021 predictions at the end. Feel free to share your thoughts and predictions in the comments!

The 2021 NWSL draft is set for Wednesday, January 13 with a live broadcast on Twitch beginning at 6 pm CT. Check out the Keeper Notes NWSL draft worksheet and the NWSL all-time draft history page.


Trophy or Bust: Tier 1

In 2020, the Thorns grabbed the top two overall NWSL draft picks, took down North Carolina in the Challenge Cup quarterfinals, won the Fall Series without losing a game and also scored some sharp kits. For 2021, Portland aims to win at least a Cup, Shield, or NWSL championship to reclaim the league’s pole position. But they’ll probably have to do it with limited fans instead of a sold-out stadium, and the Olympic window could pose a speed bump. Mark Parsons has taken the club to the playoffs every year he’s been in charge (since 2016).

Returning 2020 starters: Britt Eckerstrom, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Rocky Rodriguez, Becky Sauerbrunn, Christine Sinclair
Key additions: Crystal Dunn (trade), Natalia Kuikka (international signing)
Lost in expansion: Tobin Heath (rights)

Pedigree: 2 NWSL championships (2013, 2017), 6 playoff berths, 1 NWSL Shield, Fall Series title (Verizon Community Shield), Challenge Cup semifinalist

Draft needs: midfielder, possibly goalkeeper depending on injuries
2021 picks: 7, 12, 22, 32, 27

2020 jersey colors:
black (home), white (away)


Don’t be fooled by their major roster changes — the Courage are in no way ready to end their streak of NWSL championship titles. In 2020, they owned the Challenge Cup group stage, while their Fall Series was mere experimentation due to the absence of several starters. For the Louisville expansion draft, Paul Riley protected a squad of veterans ready to pounce again immediately.
Will the other NWSL clubs expose new weaknesses, or will the Courage discover new strengths? Will Casey Murphy take over as the starting goalkeeper? Who will replace recently retired Jaelene Daniels at left back? And will they get a more exciting jersey design?

Returning 2020 starters: Abby Dahlkemper, Debinha, Abby Erceg, Denise O’Sullivan, Lynn Williams
Key additions: Casey Murphy (trade)
Key losses:
Jaelene Daniels (retirement), Crystal Dunn (trade), Stephanie Labbé (transfer), Samantha Mewis (transfer), Ally Watt (trade)
Lost in expansion: Addisyn Merrick, Lauren Milliet

Pedigree: Back-to-back NWSL championships (2018, 2019), three consecutive NWSL Shields (2017-19), 2018 Women’s International Champions Cup title

Draft needs: midfielder, outside backs
2021 picks: 10, 20, 30

2020 jersey colors: navy (home), white (away)


Coming Soonthe 2020 Keeper Notes NWSL Almanac

Semifinal or Bust: Tier 2

The Challenge Cup champs enter 2021 with their starting lineup intact and a sexy new logo that may strike fear in opponents. The Olympic window will reveal how deep the team’s talent and chemistry goes. What happens if Kristie Mewis makes the 2021 Olympic team (even as an alternate, she’d be gone for several games)? It’s fair to assume that the team’s three Canadian starters as well as Challenge Cup MVP Rachel Daly will be gone for the Olympics. Every team will struggle at some point in 2021, so Houston’s challenge is to persevere to the finish — and hopefully release a badass jersey featuring the new crest.

Returning 2020 starters: Jane Campbell, Allysha Chapman, Rachel Daly, Shea Groom, Haley Hanson, Kristie Mewis, Katie Naughton, Megan Oyster, Sophie Schmidt, Bri Visalli
Lost in expansion: CeCe Kizer, Erin Simon

Pedigree: 2020 Challenge Cup title

Draft needs: outside back
2021 picks: 26, 27

2020 jersey colors: orange (home), white (away)

Always dangerous (maybe due to the best brand design in the league), the Red Stars return with a talented defense and a new look in attack. Rory Dames gave Louisville two good attackers to protect the rest of his roster from the November expansion draft, then made another trade for two players who could prove even better. Will Chicago’s offense carry the team to the playoffs, and can they slow down opponents when their top defenders head to Tokyo? And how can they possibly improve the classic Chicago “elevated” home jersey?

Returning 2020 starters: Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz, Morgan Gautrat, Sarah Gorden, Alyssa Naeher, Casey Short, Bianca St. Georges, Kealia Watt
Key additions:
Mallory Pugh (trade), Sarah Woldmoe (trade)
Key losses: Yuki Nagasato (trade), Savannah McCaskill (trade)

Pedigree: 5 straight playoff berths, 2019 NWSL finalist, Challenge Cup finalist

Draft needs: backup goalkeeper
2021 picks: 6, 18, 25, 35

2020 jersey colors: light blue (home), white (away)

Get more woso every week with The Mixxed Zone

Postseason or Bust: Tier 3

Washington’s cup overfloweth in defense after adding World Cup champions Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett. The Spirit’s mostly intact lineup already showed growth in 2020, finishing a solid second in the first round in Utah. Their 2021 challenge will be integrating the new talent into an attacking advantage — one option could be a 3-back on defense — without disrupting team continuity. Another challenge to consider is creating a more “spirited” home kit.

Returning 2020 starters: Aubrey Bledsoe, Ashley Hatch, Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Tegan McGrady, Ashley Sanchez, Sam Staab, Andi Sullivan, Kumi Yokoyama
Key additions:
Kelley O’Hara (trade), Emily Sonnett (trade), Saori Takarada (int’l signing)
Key losses: Rose Lavelle (trade), Meggie Dougherty Howard (trade)
Lost in expansion: Katie Lund, Katie McClure

Pedigree: 3 playoff berths, including spot in 2016 NWSL final

Draft needs: midfielder, backup goalkeeper
2021 picks: 2, 19, 29, 39

2020 jersey colors: navy (home), white (away)

2020 was a reset year for the Reign, who brought on a new coach, shuffled the deck, and got branded Euro thanks to new majority owner OL Groupe. They showed improvement throughout both the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series. Can Tacoma’s finest play to their potential from the start, or will the rebuilding process continue? How much will Megan Rapinoe be available? Will Shirley Cruz and Sofia Huerta make offensive magic with the (shoulda been) Rookie of the Year Tziarra King? And will the Reign really stick with white for their home kits?

Returning 2020 starters: Bethany Balcer, Lauren Barnes, Amber Brooks, Shirley Cruz, Jessica Fishlock, Sofia Huerta, Allie Long, Quinn, Rosie White
Key additions:
Angelina (new int’l signing), Cosette Morche (new signing), Tziarra King (trade), Ally Watt (trade)
Key losses: Darian Jenkins (trade), Casey Murphy (trade)
Lost in expansion: Julia Ashley, Michelle Betos

Pedigree: 2 NWSL Shields (2014-15), 4 playoff berths

Draft needs: defender, goalkeeper
2021 picks: 28

2020 jersey colors: white (home), royal blue (away)


On the one hand, 2020 was a disaster for Orlando — “covixcluded” from the Challenge Cup, no wins in the Fall Series, several starters out on loan. On the other hand, the Pride’s remaining veterans helped them draw twice with defending league champion North Carolina Courage. The ceiling is high, the floor is low, so who knows where Orlando will go. Can Alex Morgan and Marta recreate their offensive production from the club’s only playoff season? Will married teammates Ashlyn Harris & Ali Krieger be on the USWNT roster for Tokyo or available all season? And will the Pride unveil a new purple kit?

Returning 2020 starters: Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Sydney Leroux, Marta, Toni Pressley
Key additions:
Meggie Dougherty Howard (trade)
Key losses: Claire Emslie (transfer), Emily Sonnett (trade)
Lost in expansion: Caitlin Foord (rights), Alanna Kennedy

Pedigree: 1 playoff berth (2017)

Draft needs: Forward, possibly backup goalkeeper
2021 picks: 9, 14, 24, 34

2020 jersey colors: purple (home), white (away)


The New Jersey club looked surprisingly good in a rebuilding year, reaching the Challenge Cup semis and finishing fourth in the Fall Series. But Sky Blue has since lost a few key players — who’s gonna take their place? Can midfield general McCall Zerboni return to form after injury? How much will Carli Lloyd be available? Can the 2020 rookie goalkeeper Mandy McGlynn step up when Kailen Sheridan heads to Olympics? The club may need more surprises to compete at the same level they did in 2020 … like their dramatic lightning jersey.

Returning 2020 starters: Imani Dorsey, Estelle Johnson, Naho Kawasumi, Gina Lewandowski, Paige Monaghan, Ifeoma Onumonu, Midge Purce, Kailen Sheridan, McCall Zerboni
Key additions: Sodam Lee (int’l signing)
Key losses: Mallory Pugh (trade), Sarah Woldmoe (trade)
Lost in expansion: Jennifer Cudjoe, Kaleigh Riehl

Pedigree: 1 playoff berth (2013), Challenge Cup semifinalist

Draft needs: midfielder, depth players
2021 picks: 3, 4, 8, 13, 23, 33, 40

2020 jersey colors: black with light blue (home), white (away)


Get more woso every week with The Mixxed Zone

Big Moment or Bust: Tier 4

Utah’s former roster has traded good infrastructure and bad club management for good management and no infrastructure (yet), with the kit and logo game undetermined. Having already played 2020 without Christen Press they have some roster continuity but also a new coach in former FCKC general manager Huw Williams (the man who hired Vlatko Andonovski back in the day). Will the as-yet-unsigned-for-2021 Amy Rodriguez return to the city where she led the Blues to two titles? Can Elizabeth Ball evolve into a steadfast defensive leader? If this new KC club can make a name for itself given all the players have dealt with in the last 10 months, the city’s former championship aura could haunt the league again. Let’s hope the new KC jerseys are winners, too.

Returning 2020 starters: Elizabeth Ball, Katie Bowen, Rachel Corsie, Kate Del Fava, Gunny Jonsdottir, Lo’eau LaBonta, Amy Rodriguez, Abby Smith, Mallory Weber
Key additions: Mariana Laroquette (int’l signing)
Key losses: Aminata Diallo (loan ended, but NWSL rights retained), Vero Boquete (transfer), Kelley O’Hara (trade), Tziarra King (trade)
Lost in expansion: Christen Press (rights)

Pedigree: ghost of 2 FCKC championships

Draft needs: midfielder, forward, possibly backup goalkeeper
2021 picks: 15, 16, 17, 36, 38

2020 jersey colors: navy (home), white with gold (away)


And they’re off! Long shot odds on a mosaic squad with no clear star. But if you can judge a club by its logo, this one will be fun to watch develop into a yearling. Christy Holly, fomer Sky Blue coach and also a scout for the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup prepartions, has the #1 draft pick and rights to a few big USWNT names — but can all the pieces come together? Whenever it happens, Louisville’s first goal and first win will pop enough corks to drown the town in champagne. If not, there’s always whisky, as well as a the first-ever lavender home kit in American pro sports.

Key acquisitions: Michelle Betos (expansion draft), Jennifer Cudjoe (expansion draft), Alanna Kennedy (expansion draft), Cheyna Matthews (waivers), Savannah McCaskill (trade), Addisyn Merrick (expansion draft), Yuki Nagasato (trade), Freya Oloffson (int’l signing)
RIghts held: Caitlin Foord, Tobin Heath, Christen Press

Pedigree: tbd

Draft needs: forward, defender, depth players
2021 picks: 1, 5, 11, 21, 31


Grant’s 2021 NWSL predictions:

  • Challenge Cup: Portland Thorns
  • NWSL Shield: North Carolina Courage
  • NWSL champions: Houston Dash
  • Best 2021 Kits: Racing Louisville FC

Leave a Reply