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Sky Blue re-acquire Cudjoe in eventful draft day

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Pinto is first selection before trade to bring back star lost in expansion draft

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Washington Spirit vs Sky Blue FC Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Last night the National Women’s Soccer League held its ninth annual college draft, with teams looking to bolster their rosters and find future stars in the league’s first event of the year. Sky Blue entered with a stockpile of picks (seven, including three first rounders, across the four rounds), and turned those picks into a very impressive output of four future rookies, last year’s breakout midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe who had been lost to the expansion draft just months prior, and $240,000 in allocation money.

In a draft defined by its unique nature, Sky Blue’s draft class proved a reflection of some of the unexpected turns this year has taken. Their first selection was North Carolina midfielder Brianna Pinto, a dynamic talent who was considered the best player in the entire draft on many boards. After Racing Lousiville opted to spend its first pick on defence and Emily Fox, and the Washington Spirit selected dynamic forward Trinity Rodman, Sky Blue was gifted the chance to take a top-tier talent not expected to reach them in most projections. Pinto not only brings raw skill, but also a perfect positional fit in a Sky Blue midfield that lost its general in Sarah Killion Woldmoe and was in dire need of both a consistent outlet in possession as well as a source of creativity.

The rest of the class was dominated by midfielders as well, though general manager Alyse LaHue and head coach Freya Coombe seemed to focus on versatility. One shared trait of every player Sky Blue took in the final three rounds is the ability to play multiple positions. Taryn Torres, who Once A Metro covered as a sleeper pick, was taken with the 23rd pick. Though nominally a number 6, she has experience all over the midfield and should provide an intriguing tool for Coombe once she arrives in the league. One would expect her to serve for the immediate future as cover at defensive midfield, but she could also be used or honed in a number of other positions in the center of the park.

Delanie Sheehan also offers a versatility that will be crucial as the team prepares for the upcoming season. She’s played as both a midfielder and a defender throughout the course of her college career, though her most recent games have been at fullback. Nonetheless, her experience in different areas as well as strong technical abilities could make her a steal from the final round.

The final player Sky Blue selected, with the 40th and final pick in the draft, was Duke Blue forward/midfielder Tess Boade. Boade once again provides a number of options for lineup selections in both the midfield and attack, possessing an eye for goal (3 goals in the shortened 2020 season) that will make her a threat no matter where she is on the pitch. And at just 21 years of age Boade also provides tantalizing upside for Coombe and the rest of her coaching staff to develop.

More notable than perhaps any draft choice, however, was Sky Blue trading their second round selection to get Jennifer Cudjoe back, completing one of the more bizarre trades in recent memory. Cudjoe, who had enjoyed a breakout year in 2020 after joining the team through an open tryout, had been left unprotected for the league expansion draft in November (sparking no small amount of outcry from fans.) Unsurprisingly, Louisville leapt at the chance to lock down a player like Cudjoe, who’s shown the potential to emerge as one of the league’s top all-purpose midfielders. But last night Sky Blue reacquired the Ghana international, swapping their second round pick and $35,000 and allocation funds for her services. Though at the moment it seems unclear bar general theorizing why Sky Blue didn’t just protect Cudjoe in the first place so they could keep both her and the pick, the return of the fan-favorite midfielder is major. She’ll help to fill one of the team’s most noticeable holes at the base of the midfield, and will also provide some continuity and experience in a lineup that might feature several new faces throughout the season.

The final asset Sky Blue left the teams’ draft headquarters in Harrison with was $240,000 in expansion money, an unprecedented sum to receive from draft picks. For context, USWNT star Crystal Dunn was swapped for about $200,000, a fee nearly matched by Kansas City in what they gave up to acquire the 4th overall pick from Sky Blue ($175,000). Sky Blue now enters the dead period before the start of the season with one of the largest transfer war chests in the league, money that we no doubt will see set to use in finishing out the core of this year’s roster. The absence of a center back or winger draft selection, despite a lack of depth and aging options at both positions, is curious- perhaps LaHue is lining up a major purchase to be the face of the team with Midge Purce for years to come. Alternatively, the money could be spread out, adding three or so solid starters in both attack and defense.

Overall, Sky Blue had a very, very solid night. They head into the final stretch of the offseason with four new players that will provide the ever-crucial depth the squad lacked, a key starter from last year previously thought lost returning, and a briefcase full of league money that could be used to improve the team even further. Most importantly, in a breath of fresh air from some of the Sky Blue teams of years prior, there appears to be a clear plan in place from top to bottom. The draft strategy is evident and matches the identity Coombe has been looking to build in her time as manager- find players who are both versatile and comfortable in possession. LaHue proved to be a shrewd negotiator, managing to snap up a key asset and a tremendous amount of money for picks the team clearly didn’t believe they needed (though the timeouts she and the club repeatedly used to ensure the deals were completed gained some notoriety around the league).