LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Racing Louisville FC will begin a new era of top-level professional soccer in Louisville in the coming year -- but first, a high-stakes game of chess. Thursday's National Women's Soccer League expansion draft gives coach Christy Holly and vice president James O'Connor a chance to build the team's first roster.
But both will tell you, they're thinking more in terms of building a foundation.
"Racing Louisville is at the very start of its journey," Holly said. "We need to identify players that align with our journey and have the same desires, ambition, hunger and energy as us to work through this project."
The formula for professional soccer in Louisville has been a successful one: Find talent that wants to be a part of what is happening in Louisville, that is at home with the franchise's socially conscious and community minded approach -- and that can win.
You can't forget the winning. When the NWSL holds its draft at 7 p.m. Thursday, it'll be an opportunity for Racing to add its first building blocks. But making the right moves can be tricky.
The NWSL threw a bit of a curve ball when it allowed all of its clubs to protect 11 players. That's every starter in the league. Generally, you might've expected 9 players protected off the top clubs and 10 from others, as has been the case in the past.
So Holly and O'Connor have been scouring the lists of available players to determine the right mix, and hoping to find the right fits.
"I think there were only one or two surprises in there," Holly said of the lists. "So we've been quite fortunate that over the last number of weeks and months we've been able to dedicate quite a bit of time to preparing for this. Ultimately, it was a case of trying to predict what each team was going to do with their players. Then as we go through those protections it's about finding the players for us that we feel fit what we are trying to do with the organization both tactically and also culturally."
There are financial considerations. Holly also could select up to two U.S. "allocated" players, who are paid by the U.S. Soccer Federation and include many of the biggest names in the game, but there's little point in selecting a player of that status who is settled in her own market or who has little desire to play for an expansion club. There's also a financial incentive not to select such players -- a $150,000 bonus for taking none, half that if Louisville takes only one.
In addition, Holly might leverage an agreement not to take a team's allocated talent for some concession in return. For instance, the Chicago Red Stars got immunity from Louisville selecting any of its players by trading forwards Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato to Racing.
Regardless, Louisville doesn't figure to be a franchise that needs big names just for the sake of generating interest -- or selling tickets. Support is expected to be more than enough to keep Lynn Family Stadium lively, once a full house is allowed to attend games there for the first time.
And the club has the No. 1 pick in the NWSL college draft in 2021, meaning that it has the ability to add star power through routes other than the expansion draft.
The eye will be on long-term sustainability, not necessarily chasing immediate victories, though those would be nice.
Part of all that is remembering that there's another expansion draft next year, with the league growing into Los Angeles.
"If we can build a foundation that we think is sustainable over a number of years, I feel that would be the more sensible and logical approach," said Holly, who has experience with this process through his time with Sky Blue FC and as an analyst for U.S. Soccer. "(It's) in order to ensure that we don't come out of the gates next year, have a good year, but then get ripped apart this time next year (in the expansion draft).
"I'd be lying if I said I'm happy to acknowledge that history tells us to just sit, take our beatings, and in a couple years' time be a part of the conversation. We really and strongly wish to be competitive in every single game. We wish to try and learn from people before us to take those lessons and hopefully apply it so that we can make a real good impact in the league from day one."
The NWSL expansion draft will be conducted in 18 rounds and broadcast on the league's Twitch channel.
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