With the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League season only a week in the rearview, the Chicago Red Stars already made the first big splash of the offseason: a huge trade with significant implications for both the upcoming expansion and college drafts.
On Monday morning, the club announced the trade of forward Savannah McCaskill and midfielder Yuki Nagasato to expansion side Racing Louisville FC in addition to the 5th overall pick in the upcoming 2021 NWSL Draft and an international roster spot for both 2021 and 2022. In exchange, the Red Stars will receive full roster protection in the 2021 NWSL Expansion Draft.
The deal was completed before the league’s trade deadline last Thursday, but was not announced until all parties had been notified, according to the Red Stars. Owner and club CEO Arnim Whisler and head coach Rory Dames spoke with media shortly after the announcement. Dames’ message, first and foremost, was that this is wasn’t a decision they made lightly, and that the club is certainly disappointed to see Nagasato and McCaskill go.
“They’ve both been big parts of what we’ve done in the last year and a half,” said Dames, both players having been vital pieces to the 2019 team that reached the NWSL Championship.
“Yuki’s connection to the city, the fanbase…her professionalism has raised standards in our team that I didn’t know existed prior to her being here,” Dames said of the former Japanese international and World Cup winner.
Despite knowing it sounds cliché, Dames said that without exception Nagasato was the first player to arrive for training and the last to leave. He praised her efforts to gear her training to the role she was asked to play at a given time, particularly given the variety of positions she filled during her four seasons in Chicago.
For McCaskill, Dames sounded regretful that she wasn’t able to see her development through to its end while in Chicago, but expressed confidence in her talents and ability to succeed in the future.
“Savannah’s growth, not just as a footballer but as a person over the last year has really been incredible,” Dames said. “I don’t think it’s going to be long before she’s back in that [national team] mix.”
While it will be difficult to see both players go, Dames added that the situation of them being foundational pieces to a new team and the conversations that took place between the Red Stars and Louisville give him confidence that this can be a positive move for both players.
“Louisville was pretty adamant about the players they wanted,” Dames said of the discussions that took place over the last couple of weeks ahead of the trade’s announcement. “I guess that I find some solace in knowing that they’re going somewhere where they’re really valued and appreciated.”
With the trade of the 5th overall pick, the Red Stars still have three first-round picks in the upcoming NWSL Draft at 4th, 6th and 8th overall, a haul that is a result of their wheeling and dealing on draft day in 2020. According to Dames, he doesn’t believe they could afford to sign four first-round picks and that after years of playing what he called the long-game of acquiring assets, the club’s focus is shifting a bit this offseason to leverage what they’ve assembled for short-term gain.
“We know some areas that we have to strength in our group,” Dames said of the state of his roster. “I think we’ll start with the international market first this year, which is a little different for us than the draft.”
While the prospect of spending money on international signings, particularly in attacking positions where the roster is thinnest, will excite fans, such a move begs questions about what the club’s priorities are in terms of the players they already have. Dames said their focus was less on protecting any specific players from the expansion draft, but instead on a wholistic vision of what areas of the squad need to be kept intact for the team to succeed.
“I think the perception will be that we protected our five national team players, but in reality we protected an entire core that we think we can get another good two or three years out of,” he said. “We certainly know we still need to add to it and we know this certainly won’t be the last move we make before we start the season next year.”
Dames pointed to a series of factors within the current roster that guide his outlook, particularly the team’s strength in defensive and midfield positions. Emily Boyd’s ACL injury makes USWNT No. 1 Alyssa Naeher that much more valuable in goal, a desire to play Julie Ertz in midfield puts a premium on Casey Short, Tierna Davidson and Sarah Gorden, and the importance of Morgan Gautrat to the team’s midfield structure made entrenching that core a top priority for Dames. He and Whisler also said they hope this announcement can give players peace of mind.
Of course, hanging over all of this news and any discussions of financial considerations for the roster is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the stresses and limits it places on clubs. Given her veteran status, pedigree, and being an international player it is likely that Nagasato was among the players best-paid by the club (given that a majority of USWNT player salaries are subsidized by US Soccer), if not the highest paid. It would be easy to view such a decision as a cost-cutting move. However, Whisler was quick to dismiss any such notion in a vote of confidence to the players who remain part of the club’s mission to win a championship.
“If the implication is maybe we shed some salary in case we don’t get to play [games in 2021], we didn’t think that way,” Whisler said. “If indeed we can’t do things the way we want to next year we’ll adjust then, but we’ll take care of our players as we always have.”