Yesterday, it was announced that the Chicago Red Stars traded Yuki Nagasato, Savannah McCaskill, the 5th overall pick in the 2021 Draft, and an international roster spot for the next two seasons to new NWSL expansion team Racing Louisville in exchange for full protection of the rest of their roster in the expansion draft.
Today, I wanted to break down each part of the trade, where it leaves the Red Stars, and what we should expect going forward.
How Big a Loss is Yuki Nagasato?
Yuki Nagasato was an integral part of two of the best teams in Red Stars history in 2018 and 2019. Over those two seasons, she played in 49 games, scoring 12 goals and contributing 16 assists. She was particularly vital during the 2019 World Cup, having previously retired from the Japanese National Team. Head coach Rory Dames praised her flexibility in the roles she was asked to play, always striving to be the best at whatever job she was asked to fill.
However, Nagasato’s contract was up at the end of this year. That being the case, she isn’t worth as much as a trade asset, particularly at 33 years old and entering her 20th year as a professional soccer player. She also was one of the Red Stars’ most expensive players, if not the most expensive in terms of salary paid by the club. While Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler was adamant on Monday that this trade was not a cost-cutting move, it is undeniable that Nagasato’s departure will free up a significant amount of payroll.
While it is debatable whether she’ll be a significant loss in purely soccer terms, she will without question be a significant loss off the field. Dames praised her professionalism and the impact it has on the locker room. In addition to being a veteran presence, Nagasato’s constant positivity and sense of humor were a cornerstone of the Red Stars locker room culture. She also developed an incredibly close relationship with the fanbase and it feels as if she’s been in Chicago for over a decade rather than just 4 years. She will certainly be missed in Chicago regardless of how much future on-field success she has.
How Big a Loss is Savannah McCaskill?
Preparing to embark on her fourth NWSL season, Savannah McCaskill is still trying to find the right fit. After a record-setting scoring career at the University of South Carolina, she had the misfortune of being drafted by the Boston Breakers right before the team folded. She was the second pick (after Rose Lavelle) in the resulting dispersal draft and ended up with Sky Blue (when they were still a total mess) and scored just 3 goals in 26 games before being traded to Chicago in exchange for two draft picks. She spent the remainder of 2019 often played on the right wing, which never felt like the best use of her talents. We saw glimpses of her potential during the Challenge Cup when she was deployed behind a central striker, but with Vanessa DiBernardo entrenched in the No. 10 role and Kealia Watt settling in as the team’s preferred striker there simply wasn’t room for McCaskill. In the end, her Red Stars tally is just 3 goals in 27 games. Rory Dames sounded confident on Monday that she can rediscover her collegiate form and work her way back into the national team picture, but that was never going to be possible in Chicago. She’s a player who deserves to be put in a position to succeed, and as a foundational piece of Racing Louisville’s first roster hopefully she will be given that opportunity.
Does That Draft Pick Really Matter?
Before this trade, the Red Stars had four first round picks: 4, 5, 6 and 8, three of which were acquired on draft day last year as Rory Dames somehow emerged with more picks, players and allocation money than he started with, and had played the rest of the league off each other before they knew what hit them. During Monday’s press conference, Dames said the Red Stars couldn’t have afforded to sign four first round picks and he’s still confident they can get the players they want. It sounds like this pick wasn’t worth much of anything to them, and will be worth far more to an expansion team trying to fill out a roster.
International Roster Spots
NWSL teams are granted four international roster spots. For the next two years, one of Chicago’s spots will belong to Louisville. However, with Nagasato’s departure that basically cancels out. Neither Bianca St. Georges (Canada) nor Katie Johnson (born in the US but represents Mexico at international level) count as international players, thus the Red Stars have 3 open international spots ahead of next sesaon.
How Valuable is Full Roster Protection?
As we learned last night from Meg Linehan at The Athletic, very! Each club is only able to protect two USWNT allocated players, meaning that the Red Stars would have risked losing Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson, Casey Short, Julie Ertz or Morgan Gautrat depending on who they decided to protect. Teams are allowed to protect up to 11 players in total, and the Red Stars would also have likely risked losing some of their younger talent. All in all, this guarantees keeping the defensive core together, something Rory Dames said was a priority.
Who on the Red Stars Benefits Most From This?
If this move shows a vote of confidence in any current Red Star, it’s Sarah Luebbert. She was excellent during the Fall Series, developing an attacking chemistry with Kealia Watt and picking up a goal and two assists.
This also presents an opportunity for players like Ella Stevens, Dani Rhodes and Aerial Chavarin to work their way up the depth chart as possible options in midfield. Finally, we saw Zoey Goralski get some time on the wing during the Fall Series after playing as fullback during the Challenge Cup, and it will be interesting to see how Dames uses her going forward.
Where Does This Leave the Roster?
The Red Stars have SERIOUS depth issues on the wings right now. If we assume Kealia Watt to be a striker now, that leaves Luebbert and Johnson and potentially Rhodes and Makenzy Doniak. Rhodes played just 17 minutes in the Fall Series and Doniak failed to make much of an impact during the Challenge Cup.
Emily Boyd’s ACL injury leaves a hole behind Alyssa Naeher at the goalkeeper position. The defense still looks robust, however Rory Dames said he wants to move Julie Ertz into midfield (no idea how that would work with the current core of the roster) which raises a need for potential center back improvement. The midfield core is solid with young depth behind it. Kealia Watt looks like the entire offense at the moment, but maybe Rachel Hill can be a solid second option at striker.
What Should We Expect the Red Stars to Do?
Spend. Dames said they’re going to be putting the international market ahead of the draft this year, a very un-Red Stars thing to do. He said they’ve been focusing on the ‘long game’ for a while but indicated it was time to think more short-term. I’d expect them to fill both the international roster spots. At least one of those players will be an attacking piece, and whether they go after a striker or winger first will indicate how they plan to use Watt. They could very well spend on two high-profile attackers, but if Julie Ertz isn’t going to be on defense anymore I wouldn’t be surprised if they spend on a center-back.
If nothing else, expect more trades around the draft. We saw what Dames did last year, and with three first round picks in hand I’d be shocked if all three of those became new Red Stars.
It’s always hard to predict what will happen next in the NWSL, but the Red Stars’ needs are obvious and enough was said on Monday to have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next.
Nagasato was a cult hero, but is in the twilight of her career and carried a heavy financial hit. McCaskill is an unquestionably talented player but struggled for consistent minutes and form. The Red Stars had a surplus of draft assets and already had international spots they weren’t using. From what Dames and Whisler said on Monday, these were incredibly difficult decisions but they are confident it’s what’s best for the team going forward.
Nagasato in particular will be missed and deserves tremendous credit for helping create the family atmosphere of the team while also raising the squad’s expectations of themselves.
More than anything, though, the Red Stars want a title. For the fans, the club better make these hard goodbyes worth it.