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What it’s like to go from a last round NWSL draft pick to a contract player

We talked to three players who went in the last round of the draft - and made it to their teams.

SOCCER: JUL 20 NWSL - Sky Blue FC at Orlando Pride Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NWSL college draft is probably nervewracking for everyone, but it might be more nervewracking for some. There’s probably less anxiety around being projected as the #1 draft pick compared to those who have entered their names just on the hope that they might get a shot. And there’s the fact that getting drafted is only the beginning of the line, because as every year’s batch of cut rookies knows, a draft pick is not a contract. Drafted players have essentially been asked to come try out, and there’s no guarantee that at the end of preseason, a shiny contract will be waiting for any of them.

All for XI talked to three players who went in the last round of the draft, but made it to a contract and are still playing in the league. Marisa Viggiano went #30 overall to Orlando in 2019, Kenie Wright went #29 overall to Sky Blue FC in 2019, and McKenzie Meehan went #34 overall to Sky Blue FC in 2017.

Entering the draft is technically as simple as filling out a form and sending it to the league, but if you’re not from a championship school or a program with a woso pedigree, what do you do? Viggiano was coming from Northwestern, Wright from Rutgers, and Meehan from Boston College. At least Wright and Meehan had been preceded by draft picks from their school to whom they might reach out; Viggiano was the first ever from Northwestern. She said she made a highlight reel, put it out there, and that was basically it. Wright’s coaches and future Sky Blue teammates Erica Skroski and Madison Tiernan helped her, while Meehan had an assistant coach who reached out on her behalf to a couple of teams. But none of them were being courted by playoff teams, or inspiring high-profile trades in a war to get the first pick.

“I definitely went into it hoping for something but I didn’t want to get my hope up too much just because I wasn’t sure,” said Viggiano, who was able to attend the 2019 draft in Chicago. For her, the draft was a cool high-profile women’s soccer event mixed with sitting there with her own anxiety.

Wright didn’t attend. “I wasn’t really sure how things were going to play out so I was at home with my mom and dad,” she said. “I was getting nervous, each round I was just anxiously hoping to hear my name, and as soon as I heard my name I kind of paused - I didn’t realize it was real for a second - and then I was screaming and jumping up and down with my parents.”

Wright said that Skroski and Tiernan told her there wasn’t much else to do once her name was in the draft. “Make sure you’re really fit, make sure your technical’s good, make sure you’re playing a lot,” she said, recounting the list of things for her to do come draft day.

As tough as it might have been to sit there waiting through 30 names to hear yours, all of the players said they knew it wouldn’t be the end of the line. Should the draft turn out a bust, they all had it in the back of their minds that they could also seek opportunities in Europe, or go to open tryouts, or try to join up with a practice or reserve team. First or last round, the ambition is the same.

“When I was like eight years old wrote on a piece paper I want to become a professional soccer player and my mom of course had framed it,” said Wright. The same mom, Wright said, who started crying when her name was called.

“At first you have a lot of people congratulating you on being drafted and all of that but in my mind I was always like, well I have to make the team now,” said Meehan. The waiting and not knowing of preseason is its own test for would-be rookies trying to impress coaches. “If you don’t make the team, you have to think about what’s next and it’s tough not knowing what your year or what your season could look like,” she said. So she leaned on some of her soccer connections to get a feel for just how hard preseason might be, talking to fellow Boston College alums Kristie Mewis and Stephanie McCaffrey. Wright went to teammate Estelle Johnson. The common thread of preseason advice seems to be work hard on yourself and don’t get caught up in comparisons. Focus on where you are, instead of catastrophizing about having to make backup plans in case it all goes wrong.

“Trust the process and not get too high or too low,” said Meehan. “You never know what teams are looking for. They might be looking for certain positions or a certain type of player, so you can’t immediately start thinking, oh I’m not as good as these players.”

“I think something that would have made me feel a little better,” said Viggiano of her preseason experience, “Was you’re not the only one in that boat. Of course there are players already that have contracts going into preseason but there’s still people fighting for spots so the feelings of nerves or anxiety, that’s all normal going into preseason.”

One thing that could be better is communication from the league. Meehan said she would like more information on the rules and more access to networking with other players, and that sometimes there could be confusion over things like which team holds your rights.

“I do think the league could do a better job at supplying the information to rookies,” Meehan said. “Letting them know what their options are, especially people who don’t get drafted that maybe could become a practice player or a tryout or go to Europe.”

Perhaps knowing about all your options is an information void that the NWSL Players Association is helping to fill as it matures and develops more resources, but Meehan has a point that players deserve more information about their careers so that they can make the best possible decisions for themselves.

Viggiano said that she feels things are getting better with the league in terms of college players being able to find avenues to get the experienced player perspective. There’s more of a template now for how things can happen in the college-to-pro transition, even for players coming from smaller programs. She and Wright and Meehan are the pros now, the ones who will be giving advice to the new kids in preseason camp.

“Just be true to the player and person you are,” said Wright. “Don’t change for anyone or any team. Just work hard and be your best self.”