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At NWSL draft, Sprit trades two starters for a haul of college talent

At NWSL draft, Sprit trades two starters for a haul of college talent

After a busy week of offseason announcements, the Washington Spirit began Friday with two first-round picks in the NWSL draft and a roster mostly unchanged from last season. By the time the day ended, the Spirit welcomed a draft class of college soccer’s top talent — at the cost of two longtime starters who helped shape the club’s core.

In a pair of blockbuster trades, the Spirit sent star midfielder Ashley Sanchez to the North Carolina Courage for the No. 5 pick and $250,000 in allocation money and dealt defensive stalwart Sam Staab to the Chicago Red Stars for the No. 3 selection.

The deals gave the Spirit four first-round picks, the most of the 14 teams gathered in Anaheim, Calif. The club used them to assemble a strong group: Georgia midfielder Croix Bethune (No. 3), Clemson midfielder Hal Hershfelt (No. 5), Penn State defender Kate Wiesner (No. 7) and Clemson defender Makenna Morris (No. 13).

But they came at a price. Sanchez, who was drafted fourth overall by Washington in 2020, was a standout attacking midfielder for the Spirit, with a skill set and electric footwork that made her one of the NWSL’s most exciting young players. The 24-year-old has 27 appearances for the U.S. national team and was on the World Cup roster in 2023.

“Ashley is an exceptionally gifted player with an intense competitive drive,” General Manager Mark Krikorian said in a news release. “We are grateful for everything she brought to D.C. as both a player and a professional and wish her the best in this next step of her career.”

Staab, 26, was selected by the Spirit with the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft and became a stalwart presence on the back line. She set an NWSL record with 90 consecutive regular season starts, playing every minute of Washington’s past three campaigns. The center back earned Best XI honors in 2023 and was a finalist for the league’s defender of the year award.

“We can’t say enough about Sam’s reliability and defensive acumen over her five years with the team,” Krikorian said. “She has truly been an unsung hero since joining the Spirit, and the organization wishes her nothing but the best going forward in what will be a promising career.”

Bethune is the Spirit’s highest pick since it took Trinity Rodman with the second choice in 2021. One of the most creative prospects in the draft, she scored 30 goals in four college seasons and is likely to be a contender to fill the void left by Sanchez in the midfield. Morris, a Germantown native, was a two-time All-Met at St. John’s.

The Spirit added Arkansas forward Anna Podojil with the 35th pick and Utah midfielder Courtney Brown with the 49th pick.

The Utah Royals and Bay FC, the two expansion teams entering the NWSL this season, held the draft’s first two picks. Ally Sentnor, a 19-year-old forward/midfielder from North Carolina, was selected No. 1 by Utah. Bay FC selected Tar Heels defender Savy King, 18, with the second pick.

Florida State’s Lauren Flynn (Yorktown) and Penn State’s Ellie Wheeler (of Fairfax Station) were drafted in the second round by Utah and the Kansas City Current, respectively. University of Virginia defender Talia Staude went to the Courage in the second round.

The Spirit on Tuesday announced the hiring of Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez as its next coach. It signed U.S. national team defender Casey Krueger on Wednesday. Free agent forward Brittany Ratcliffe, an eight-year NWSL veteran and former U-Va. standout, also joined Washington on a three-year deal.

Notes: The NWSL hopes to release its regular season schedule by the end of the month, Commissioner Jessica Berman said at a pre-draft news conference. … The league is aiming to launch a full rebrand next year and plans to add two expansion teams, in Boston and a to-be-determined location, in 2026. … The salary cap is $2.75 million this offseason, an increase of 40 percent from last season.

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