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Jan. 13, 2021 — More of the same in women’s soccer?

A decade ago, Lindsey Horan did something which was unheard of in American women’s sports. As the top-ranked female soccer recruit coming out of high school, she decided to forego a scholarship to the University of North Carolina in order to play with the pro women’s soccer team Olympique Lyonnais.

This kind of thing has been de rigeur in men’s sports for years, especially since a pair of basketball players named Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson entered a little-known dispersal draft called a “hardship draft,” sending both to the NBA, whereupon they won eight NBA titles, six MVPs, played on the 1992 “Dream Team” at the Barcelona Olympics, and entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

The last couple of days, the world of women’s soccer has been flipped upside down with a pair of intentions to turn professional by a pair of prominent American players.

Brianna Pinto is a midfielder for the University of North Carolina. She is one of the most-capped players in the history of United States U-20 soccer, having won the 2019 U.S. Soccer Young Player of the Year. That honor has been won by a litany of legends including current U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone, as well as national-team mainstays like Heather O’Reilly, Kristie Mewis, Tobin Heath, Julie Johnston Ertz, Morgan Brian, and Mallory Pugh.

A couple of days ago, she posted her intention on Twitter to leave UNC to declare for the NWSL draft, which takes place today. She is expected to be a likely top-four pick by expansion side Louisville, Washington, or Sky Blue FC, which holds the third and fourth selections of the draft.

While Pinto is destined to be wearing an NWSL shirt starting this spring, the same cannot be said for another college soccer star. Stanford junior Catarina Macario, she of the two Hermann Trophies and two NCAA titles, has opted to forego her senior season and sign professionally with Olympique Lyonnais.

Macario, according to the Stanford Daily, was in a bit of a bidding war for her services, as Bayern Munich was cited as a candidate. But Macario decided to instead go to France, even though there’s likely to be an NWSL side likely to snap up her domestic rights for the moment she decides to come back to U.S. shores.

I think, however, there’s something deeper than just the ability to play in France, away from the COVID-19 pandemic in North America.

One of her teammates in Lyon will be Ada Hegerberg, the Norwegian player who decided to opt out of participation for Norway at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup over player contracts with the national federation for soccer. As such, I think Macario could very well be setting up a confrontation with the NWSL over the very existence of the player draft.

You see, in world soccer, individual teams in every country try to grow their talent at home in developmental academies or developmental youth leagues, sort of like if every NWSL or MLS team had teams at every possible age level. Something like this has already been tried, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which was ended in April of 2020.

But the draft remains, tying the drafted player’s rights to one club unless that club trades those rights away. Mind you, it’s not quite like baseball’s reserve clause; eventually soccer players’ rights can expire.

I’m interested to see what happens in a couple of years after Macario’s contract expires, especially if she becomes a prominent player for the United States leading up to the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

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