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NWSL – The Peculiar Case of Elizabeth Guess, the Portland Thorns, and Ever Puzzling Roster Rules

posted by All White Kit
Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 9:04am EDT

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I’ll freely admit that this column has taken a turn since I first began mapping it out last night when more questions began to be asked in lieu of the Breakers’ unexpected move of waiving Elizabeth Guess after the former UNC player had assisted on the club’s goal in the opener against Washington. Given what’s about to follow, I certainly didn’t expect Guess to find a new home so easily, but that she did and who she found it with opens up a whole different bag of worms, as you’ll probably see.

Nobody is going to deny that the NWSL has experienced some teething problems early on, from the lack of actual centralized promotion from the league in the run-up to the new season to the often temperamental steams in the opening few weeks, but all of that seems like window dressing in my eyes compared to the often non-sensical and quite possibly inconsistent application of an increasingly draconian set of roster rules. Not that it’s necessarily been an easy go for the league, who’s had to deal with injuries, pregnancies, players starting the season abroad, players not bothering to come stateside to play, and federation interference…and that’s just with allocated players.

Beyond that though, the hoops through which clubs had to jump through to build a roster seemed borderline asinine at times. While things seemed to run relatively smoothly through the rookie draft, piles upon piles of regulation raised more questions as the preseason went along. There was the rather bizarre supplemental draft, where many a club selected players who had no intention of playing, a spectacle no doubt not helped by the league leaving it up to the teams to put together a list of players they were conceivably interested in, instead of freely taking in the names of interested participants only. The end product was something of a fiasco, with Pacific Northwest clubs Portland and Seattle looking sheepish after first round picks Tina Ellertson and Nikki Krzysik both declined to play in the new league. It was far from the only misstep, as many of the league’s clubs saw later round picks also decline to sign with the club. Adding to the oddness, after the first set of preseason cuts, a previously unannounced waiver draft was held. A second waiver draft would not be held after final preseason cuts.

Things would get weirder from there. Just how weird wasn’t exactly clear until the regular season approached, and the puzzling roster policy was only brought into further question by the earlier mentioned waiving of Guess by the Breakers and the revelation that the club wasn’t being allowed to sign a roster replacement for the injured Bianca D’Agostino. Some likely blamed the club for carrying just eighteen players to begin with, the league minimum, when teams could carry up to twenty (or one or two more depending on allocation circumstances).

Which brings me to a rather contentious revelation. Having, at the final roster cut, publicly wondered why, when injuries and international duty would surely make a roster of twenty rather than eighteen more feasible long-term, many clubs would choose to carry just the minimum number of players mandated by the league, a little birdie flew by my inbox and provided some rather eye-opening news. I, like many others, had naturally assumed that after the supplemental draft, clubs were free to sign players as they pleased to fill out their rosters. I was informed that this was not the case.

Clubs were apparently limited to the four (or more in the case of clubs with special circumstances) “discovery” players they had the ability to sign after the supplemental draft. The author’s ear heard that some of the clubs were surprised to say the least about this revelation, resulting in multiple clubs carrying the league minimum players on their roster. Even in the case of injury, if a team was out of free agent and discovery player slots, clubs were not being permitted to sign a player that had not been selected in either the rookie or supplemental draft by them. Cue the anxiety as some clubs likely began to wonder how they could shuffle their roster and stay viable on the pitch.

The short-term answer seems to be a club’s ability to call up “reserve” players to bring the club up to the league minimum in the event of an injury crisis or international absences. The league rulebook notes that these players are unpaid, save for expenses, which is a rather contentious issue in itself. The above revelations bring up a rather mind-boggling Catch 22 situation though. If a reserve player proves to be thoroughly impressive if given a shot in an actual game situation, but nobody has an open free agent or discovery player slot, that player essentially has no recourse in pursuing a paid contract until the next NWSL season.

Which brings us back around to the news that Elizabeth Guess had been claimed on waivers by the Portland Thorns. From a roster regulation standpoint, this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Here are the non-allocated/drafted players currently on the Portland roster:

Free Agent
-Becky Edwards
-Allie Long
-Nikki Marshall
-Nikki Washington

Discovery
-Jazmyne Avant
-Danielle Foxhoven
-Adelaide Gay
-Emilee O’Neil
-Meleana Shim
-Courtney Wetzel

In theory, you could explain away the two extra discovery player slots by reasoning the league was compensating the Thorns for losing both their Mexican allocations through circumstances that were entirely out of their hands. But Guess makes a seventh discovery player signed, which would seemingly be against the league’s edict on the number of discovery players able to be signed. Unless Guess is somehow not being treated as a discovery player for Portland despite signing with Boston as one.

An official explanation would be nice, though I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation of one.

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