Utah Royals FC add two attacking players in NWSL expansion draft

Both players could end up as starters for the Royals, and both can be true building blocks in the locker room.

(Lindsey Wasson | AP) OL Reign forward Elyse Bennett (34) moves the ball against the Portland Thorns during the second half of an NWSL soccer match on June 3, 2023, in Seattle. Utah Royals FC selected Bennett in the NWSL expansion draft on Dec. 15, 2023.

Update: On Dec. 17, the Utah Royals traded Elyse Bennett to San Diego Wave FC in exchange for $40,000 in allocation money.

Bay FC and Utah Royals FC added additional players to their respective teams via the NWSL expansion draft on Friday night. Bay FC added five players across the positional groups, and secured a goalkeeper in North Carolina Courage’s Katelyn Rowland. The Royals, carrying a larger roster into Friday night, only opted to make two picks, but made the most of those two picks.

With most of the teams maneuvering ahead of the draft to trade their way out — whether partially or fully — from Friday night’s draft, the event itself was a drastically reduced affair compared to previous versions, especially as the teams passed during later rounds.

Here are each team’s picks with quick analysis, plus more on the future of the expansion draft.

Bay FC

Defender Alyssa Malonson from OL Reign

Midfielder Tessa Boade from the North Carolina Courage

Forward Rachel Hill from San Diego Wave FC

Goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland from the North Carolina Courage

Midfielder Sierra Enge from San Diego Wave FC

Bay FC came in with the smaller roster of the two, though they still did not maximize the number of selections they could have made on Friday night. But the balance of their selections helps them across the board — and their final pick of the night in Enge brings back a Stanford kid back to the Bay Area. Bay’s picks skewed slightly younger, with two 24-year-olds in Malonson and Boade, plus Enge at 23 — but picking up a winning, veteran keeper in Rowland helps balance out that youth.

“When I saw (Rowland) was available, that was a no-brainer for us, and someone we were really hoping would still be on the board,” head coach Albertin Montoya said on Attacking Third after the draft.

Utah Royals FC

Forward/midfielder Elyse Bennett from OL Reign

Forward Paige Monaghan from Racing Louisville FC

The Royals entered Friday night with 12 players already on the roster, so head coach Amy Rodriguez and sporting director Kelly Cousins were under less pressure to make the most of the expansion draft. Both picks are extremely promising for a number of reasons, both players could absolutely end up as starters for the Royals, and both can be true building blocks in the locker room.

“I think today was very successful for us,” Rodriguez said on Attacking Third after the draft, noting that she targeted players who would be great for the team’s culture.

Some more thoughts on the expansion draft itself

Earlier this week in the Full Time newsletter, I wondered if this would be the final expansion draft we see in the NWSL — and after Friday night, I’m upgrading myself from “doubtful about why this roster mechanism exists” to full “NWSL expansion draft hater.” Free agency will play a role here, but Friday night’s broadcast of the expansion draft was not great television on a Friday night. To be fair, the small number of selections isn’t CBS’s fault, but the tone was off for an event of this nature.

Commentator Jordan Angeli did eventually note that some players’ lives are uprooted during an expansion draft, but near the end of the event. Meanwhile, commissioner Jessica Berman cheerfully appeared in a custom NWSL blazer to discuss her favorite moments of the previous season. Bay FC announced their picks with kids in branded merchandise. At least this wasn’t a dispersal draft, but any draft is ultimately a player welfare issue.

Utah’s Kelly Cousins touched on this during their media availability on Friday night, as well.

“When you get to draft day, it’s not nice for anyone, even for us, being in it,” she said. “You’re picking a player, and a new player finds out in the moment, live on telly, that they go to another club. For us, that doesn’t sit well, I think it is something that probably should change because you’re saying a player could be uprooted. We’re a week away from Christmas, and now they might have to move to the other side of the country.”

Bay FC general manager Lucy Rushton said that the expansion draft was “imperative,” however. “I think it’s essential because I think without it, it would have been very difficult for us to amass a roster from within the NWSL.”

For Rushton, the expansion draft provided the impetus to force all of those trades for expansion draft protection ahead of the deadline earlier this week.

“Is it the nicest mechanism through which to acquire players? No, probably not, not for the players and it’s tough. I certainly think it’s essential and especially now, having gone through the process, it scares me to think what some of the numbers might have looked like that teams might have asked for to trade their players.”

And this isn’t even accounting for the strange tension the unprotected players must have been feeling during the event — nervous to have their names called, but perhaps offended when they weren’t? Neither Bay FC nor Utah selected a player from the Chicago Red Stars, leaving their roster untouched on Friday night. For last year’s last place team and those players, that has to sting.

What’s next?

It’s free agency time, for real. While Bay FC and Utah Royals FC were able to work the free agency market and make signings ahead of the expansion draft, the existing teams were incentivized to hold off on signing any paperwork until Saturday morning as free agents did not take up spots in teams’ protected lists.

There are some big names in the free agency mix too this year, with Crystal Dunn, Rose Lavelle, Emily Sonnett, Tierna Davidson, Emily Fox and more available. Helpfully, the NWSL has a free agency tracker on their website this year.

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.