Longtime — and long-suffering — Boston Breakers fans will know this story: the one about the No. 1 draft pick and the season that wasn’t. The struggle, and the trade, and the what could have been.
If you know the story to which I’m referring, congratulations — you’re probably old and reading this in between fits of all-caps tweeting at the Tumblring teens about how back in your day the only way to watch a professional women’s soccer game was via days-later grainy YouTube clips shot from space on the used camcorder your grandparents gifted your parents with the express purpose of recording your sister’s dance recitals in the 1980s.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, first, please stop trying to teach me Snapchat. Second, let’s take a walk down memory lane and make a pit stop in a place called Cautionary Tale. It is 2009, the first year of Women’s Professional Soccer. The Boston Breakers, with the first pick in the first-ever WPS draft, select a promising young striker out of USC.
With an Olympics already under her belt, Amy Rodriguez was well on her way to becoming a fixture on the USWNT by the time the Breakers picked her up for the inaugural WPS season. Rodriguez was supposed to be the next big thing — or one of the big things — in this brand new league; one of the next generation of the U.S.’s seemingly endless supply of star strikers. Rodriguez was fast, could get into good positions, and had a nose for goal.
Once she pulled on that Breakers blue though, all that promise disappeared, washed out to sea on the wave that’s adorned the Boston’s crest for so many years. Whatever success A-Rod was having on the international level never quite translated to the week-in-week-out grind of the professional game, and by the end of her rookie season, Rodriguez’s contributions included a just a single goal and a lot of frustration.
By the following season, A-Rod had been traded to Philadelphia, where she quickly became an essential part of an Independence team that made it all the way to the WPS championship game.
Now, eight years and one league later, the Breakers are again the owners of the No. 1 draft pick, though this time it came from last year’s last place finish, Boston’s second time at the bottom of the table in as many seasons. With that top pick at the 2017 college draft, Boston again went for a promising young talent with some time with the USWNT under her belt. On a January day in Los Angeles, Rose Lavelle became a Boston Breaker.
In the context of Rodriguez — like if you’re reading this while still in Cautionary Tale circa 2009 — Boston picking up Lavelle is a terrifying prospect. It’s almost enough to make you wish someone else got her. Also, if you are still in 2009, don’t get attached to WPS; it gets super sad toward the end.
While Boston’s track record with the top pick — and just in general — may not be that great, it’s also maybe not quite fair to compare Lavelle to what happened to A-Rod nearly a decade ago. Though the two share the distinction of going first and getting a boost from the USWNT hype train, that’s about where the similarities end.
The most obvious difference is that we’re in a whole other league now, and one that — despite the fact we just found out, a whole two days before the start of the season, where and how to watch the games — doesn’t feel like it’s flying quite as much by the seat of its pants.
We’re in year five, smashing through the previously impenetrable three-year barrier that felled the previous two leagues. The relative infrastructure, history, and stability that the NWSL brings as compared to WPS, especially when Rodriguez was a rookie, means that at the very least, there are four other people who once stood where Lavelle is now, and based on where at least three of them are now, things will probably turn out OK.
Perhaps the tale we should be looking at for comparison’s sake isn’t A-Rod’s at all. Perhaps we should instead head west, to Chicago in 2015. The Red Stars, for all their struggles in the WPS era and in the early days of NWSL, made the playoffs for the first time in 2015, and they did it largely on the strength of a team devoid of the kind of names you’d think they’d need to get there.
Unlike some of the league’s other teams, Chicago’s never been particularly flashy. The Red Stars have made few trades over the years, and beyond retirements, no one’s really fled. In 2015, with many of the NWSL’s top players revolving in and out of the picture due to the World Cup, the Red Stars quietly became one of the league’s best teams, and they did it largely on the strength of a handful of rookies and players who’d come up in Chicago.
Sure, sometimes they had Julie Johnston and Christen Press, but mostly it was players like Danielle Colaprico, Arin Gilliland, Sofia Huerta and Vanessa DiBernardo who saw the Red Stars through.
Boston, without many big names to lose (Lavelle is the Breakers’ only USWNT allocation), has a chance to start to duplicate what the Red Stars have done. In addition to Lavelle, Boston picked up Morgan Andrews, Ifeoma Onumonu, Midge Purce and goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme in the 2017 draft. It’s a rookie class that could bring some success to Boston, and more importantly, one the Breakers could start to build off of.
Speaking of building, Boston has started to establish its own solid core of players returning year after year. Julie King has been a Breaker since the inaugural NWSL season, and Libby Stout, Abby Smith, Christen Westphal, Kylie Strom, Natasha Dowie, Angela Salem and Brooke Elby are all in their second season in Breakers blue and white.
In addition to the rookies and that core of returning Breakers, Boston’s added a handful of NWSL veterans in places it really needed them. None are particularly flashy signings, but all are big improvements.
Adriana Leon was a Breaker in 2013 and returns to Boston after stints in Chicago, Western NY, and Switzerland. Tiffany Weimer was briefly a Breaker in the WPS days and returns after playing just about everywhere else in both the NWSL and Europe. Amanda Frisbie, despite someone’s best efforts to make her disappear, joins Boston after stints in Western NY, Kansas City, and Iceland. Amanda DaCosta has played for both Chicago and Washington. Megan Oyster spent two seasons in Washington before being traded to Boston in November. Allysha Chapman spent last season in Houston.
Chapman (Boston’s sole Canadian allocation) and Oyster are good additions to a defense that was at least partially responsible for a league-worst minus-33 goal differential in 2016. That Smith is back on the field after a suffering a season-ending knee injury less than halfway through her second appearance for Boston last year is more good news for a team that’s been hemorrhaging goals.
Lavelle and Andrews are two of 2017’s most promising rookies. And that Dowie will be around for more than the last month-and-a-half of the season is one of the best things that could happen to an offense that looked like it had all but forgotten the meaning of the word. Forgotten-like Dowie somehow led the Breakers in scoring in 2016 and she only scored three goals, including the game-winner in her debut, the whole thing leaving Boston fans to wonder what life would’ve been like had she been around for a whole season.
This year, we’ll get the answer to the Dowie question, to the one about what happens when you keep your high draft picks rather than trade them away for players who turn out to be busts, and to the one about whether what happened way back when with A-Rod was a fluke or the start of a pattern that’s taken eight years to develop.
Part of the answer to all those questions, probably, is that things won’t change completely overnight. Boston likely won’t make the playoffs this season, but the Breakers probably won’t finish dead last for a third consecutive season, either. This whole building a soccer team thing is something of a puzzle after all, and for the first time, Matt Beard and Co. at least have the pieces that are the same colors as the picture on the box. Whether the cat comes in at night while they sleep and knocks the whole thing onto the floor and, like Amanda Frisbie, disappears under the couch again? October is a long way away.