Racing Louisville selects rights to Tobin Heath, Christen Press in NWSL expansion draft

After spending most of Thursday's NWSL expansion draft stockpiling youth and defense, Racing Louisville FC made sure it was heard around the soccer world by selecting Tobin Heath and Christen Press with the final two picks.

Or at least by selecting the NWSL rights to the two American World Cup winners who are currently playing abroad with Manchester United.

Heath and Press were by far the biggest names called by the NWSL's 10th and newest club, but there are no guarantees either will play for the team anytime soon -- if ever. Both are under contract with Manchester United through the end of the 2020-21 FA WSL season and are obvious candidates for the U.S. team that will compete in next summer's rescheduled Olympics and any potential post-Olympics tour, further limiting any immediate NWSL availability.

As long as Heath and Press remain allocated by U.S. Soccer, the federation, rather than Racing Louisville, would be responsible for their NWSL salaries if they return to the league.

Existing NWSL teams were allowed to protect up to two players allocated by the U.S. federation in Thursday's expansion draft. Once a team lost a U.S. allocated player, any other such players on its roster were automatically protected.

Portland protected newly acquired U.S. national team mainstays Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan, leaving goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and Heath's rights unprotected. Heath played for Portland in each of the NWSL's first seven seasons.

"Tobin is a world-class player who has been an instrumental part of this club over the past eight seasons," Thorns general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson said in a statement. "Only being able to protect two U.S. players made this an extremely difficult decision. Tobin will leave a lasting legacy here in Portland on this club and community, and we wish her well."

After a troubled year that included the dismissal of coach Craig Harrington before the NWSL's fall games, Utah protected only one U.S. allocated player, defender Kelley O'Hara, suggesting it perhaps did not expect Press to return regardless. She played two seasons for the Royals after being acquired from the Chicago Red Stars.

By selecting the rights to Heath and Press, Racing Louisville effectively forfeited $150,000 in allocation money. The team would have received $75,000 in such funds for each allocation spot it left empty in the draft.

Racing Louisville focused on building a back line with its early picks, selecting defenders Addisyn Merrick and Julia Ashley from the North Carolina Courage and OL Reign, respectively, with the first two picks.

The 28th overall selection in the 2020 college draft, Merrick started eight of North Carolina's nine games this year across the Challenge Cup and fall schedule.

Racing Louisville selected a second player from the Courage, the most any team could lose, when it chose midfielder Lauren Milliet with the seventh pick. Milliet was the 14th overall pick in the 2019 college draft and, like Merrick, impressed during the pandemic-altered 2020 season.

Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly acknowledged that North Carolina, which swept the regular season and postseason titles in 2018 and 2019, was a model.

"We look at North Carolina," Holly said. "We see the way in which Paul [Riley] built his team, the manner in which he manages it, and we need to acknowledge that and try to take some of those ingredients and bring it into our team."

The sixth overall pick by Sky Blue FC in the 2019 college draft, Ashley opted to sign instead with Linkopings in the Sweden's top division. She also subsequently played in Australia's W-League. OL Reign acquired her NWSL rights from Sky Blue this past January, but an injury prevented her from playing for the team this year.

In addition to the U.S. internationals currently abroad, Racing Louisville used two picks on Australian internationals who are also playing in England: forward Caitlin Foord and defender Alanna Kennedy. Both were left unprotected by the Orlando Pride. In Foord's case, Louisville acquired her rights after she signed a contract with Arsenal. Kennedy is on loan with Tottenham.

Among other notable picks were midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe, a standout in 2020, and defender Kaleigh Riehl, both from Sky Blue, and veteran OL reign goalkeeper Michelle Betos.

Given the uncertain status of Heath and Press, as well as the Australians, the biggest names in Louisville's opening day lineup may be players acquired before the draft. In exchange for Louisville not selecting any of its players Thursday, Chicago previously sent former No. 2 overall pick Savannah McCaskill and Japanese veteran Yuki Nagasato to the new club.

Thursday isn't the first time big names were involved in an expansion draft. In 2015, Portland traded Alex Morgan to Orlando for a package that included the No. 1 pick in that year's expansion draft. That pick turned out to be U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg.

A new NWSL trade window begins Friday.