For those whose image of United States women’s national team star Sydney Leroux is built on the hot start to her international career, magazine features and a high-profile relationship with a prominent Major League Soccer player, today’s blockbuster National Women’s Soccer League trade probably looks like a steal. Then again, if those are the only reasons you know the 24-year-old forward, you probably haven’t heard about the deal at all. Allow us to fill you in.
The Seattle Reign, owner of last season’s best regular season record and runner up to FC Kansas City in 2014’s playoffs, traded Leroux and 2014 first round pick Amanda Frisbie to the Western New York Flash. In return, the team received one-time but not current U.S. international midfielder Amber Brooks, a first round pick in next year’s college draft, and an obscure commodity named Mary Abigail Wambach.
No, Mary Abigail isn’t related to the better-known Abby. She is Abby, the same Abby that earlier this month said the NWSL isn’t for her. At least, she said that in so many words, eventually telling SI.com that she might consider playing in Europe between this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. In the interim, it’s generally believed she’s shelved it for 2015, electing to preserve an increasingly-creeky 34-year-old body in pursuit of the one honor that’s alluded her: a World Cup.
So if Wambach is out and Leroux’s going the other way, what gives? That’s the real story in this trade – not so much that a soon-to-be 35-year-old with no value to Western New York has been traded. Give us something we can use, please, the Flash might say. It’s not like head coach/general manager Aaron Lines was ever anticipating his club’s biggest draw putting on the team’s white, red and yellow again.
No, the story here is Leroux (above). Two years ago, when she was allocated to the Boston Breakers, she was thought to be a potential figurehead – one of the four or five stars clubs in the nascent league could build around. But after one unsatisfying and sporadically productive year in the northeast, Leroux and Boston parted ways. The idea of her getting closer to her family in the Pacific Northwest was the stated rationale, but when Boston accepted far below sticker, it was also saying goodbye to a player who’d failed to live up to expectations.
Those expectations were also present in Seattle, where Leroux’s acquisition headlined a winter of moves that brought in future league MVP Kim Little, first team all-league selection Naho Kawasumi, and the rest of a group that orchestrated the league’s biggest turnaround. Unfortunately, Leroux played more like a role player than a focal point in Seattle’s seventh-to-first reversal. In 22 regular season games, she scored only five goals, and memorably, as her team chased a goal in the second half of the title game, fans at Starfire Sports Complex began calling for Beverley Yanez (née Goebel) to replace the ineffective star. As Seattle’s title dreams faded, head coach Laura Harvey pulled Leroux from the field.
That loss didn’t diminish people’s regard for Harvey’s maneuvering. She’d completely remade her team over the course of one offseason, giving women’s soccer social media meme-worthy material every time she pulled off another lopsided deal. Why are other general managers even picking up the phone, some of us wondered. A small corner of the internet still survives (and was updated today) in honor of her exploits, with deals like Leroux’s making Harvey the most fearsome trader in the NWSL.
That’s important context when evaluating Seattle’s latest deal. Superficially, it looks like a star-for-star swap, with only one star intending to play this season. Beneath the surface, Harvey (above) has had a year to train with Leroux, who left her new teammates unimpressed with her technical ability. Even if her fearsome physical tools didn’t produce more goals in 2015, Seattle still had its leading goal scorer returning (midfielder Kim Little, 16), another star (Megan Rapinoe) whose renewed health should help improve on a four-goal campaign, and a forward in Yanez whose production could increase without sacrificing minutes to Leroux. Unless you absolutely know Leroux is going to improve on her 2014, she’s expendable, even if her reputation hints otherwise.
As evidenced by the commotion surrounding her recent marriage, that reputation is still prodigious, but it doesn’t account for her present reality. Leroux hasn’t scored an international goal in five months. She hasn’t scored against a top 24 team in nine. Part of the reason for that is injury. Part of the reason is she’s been losing playing time, regardless. Over two years in the NWSL, she’s averaging a goal every 222.9 minutes, a rate that plummeted last season, when she scored a goal every 374.6 minutes. By many’s expectations, Leroux should have matured into a player who competes with Alex Morgan and Christen Press for playing time with the national team. Instead, she’s stagnated and now risks becoming the American soccer cliché: excess pace, power and passion; not enough technique, awareness or dedication to club soccer.
In Western New York, she’ll have a chance to recapture the form that vaulted her to stardom. The list of players who’ve had standout campaigns under Lines in the last five seasons has earned him deserved respect. If he can’t resuscitate her career, Leroux probably really is a lost cause. In the present, however,Sydney Leroux is justifiably expendable for Seattle.
If Wambach doesn’t play, this becomes Leroux and Frisbie for Brooks and a pick. Frisbie cost Seattle a first rounder last year, so the Reign has essentially recouped its investment on a player who didn’t play a minute in 2014 (injuries) and still seems between positions (forward and defense). Considering the club also got a year’s evaluation of the former University of Portland star, that’s not a bad swap. Seattle doesn’t give up Frisbie if Harvey sees her as a future all-star.
As for Leroux and Brooks, neither was above average at their positions last season. Both were collegiate stars (Leroux at UCLA, Brooks at North Carolina), and both were quickly traded from their original teams after one year in the league. After today’s trade, both have been traded twice. For each, you can argue they’re unique talents who’ve been in bad fits and need new surroundings (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s the devil’s advocate case). And particularly with the numbers Brooks put up in the Frauen Bundesliga with Bayern Munich (nine goals in 27 games over three seasons), you could argue each has untapped, all-star level potential. Based on their performances last season, the gap between Leroux and Brooks isn’t as large as the gap in their renown.
But if Leroux’s potential to exceed that standard is one wildcard in this equation, Wambach’s future can tip the scales. And despite the subtle, equitable nature of the deal without her factored in, something tells me this deal doesn’t happen if a little bird hasn’t traveled between Portland and Seattle (if not throughout the NWSL) and let it be known that Wambach (above), like so many players in the league, would prefer to play for Portland or Seattle. She lives in Portland, has a greater chance of winning in Seattle, and perhaps could justify playing the second half of the season within a game day’s commute of her home.
It’s been rumored since the league’s inception that Wambach had Portland at the top of her allocation preferences only to see the Thorns end up with Alex Morgan. She ended up in Western New York, near her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., and did an admirable job of putting on a good face. But particularly with her wife retired and living in Portland, her preference to be closer to home is less of a secret than a circumstantial case that would sway a jury. If you get anything better than even odds on her playing for Seattle this summer, take them. It makes too much sense.
Otherwise, Seattle is trading from a thinning area of its squad (strikers) for a player that augments and already deep position (midfield). And Laura Harvey will have completed a rare trade where she didn’t come away looking the obvious winner. That makes slightly less sense than the underlying, completely speculative, but otherwise obvious scenario:
Over the last few weeks, it may have become known that Wambach would be willing to return, under the right circumstances. And during that time, Seattle put its call into Western New York, finally making headway when it offered the one star it could afford to move. Maybe other phone calls were made from Chicago, urging teams to find a way to get Wambach on the field during what’s supposed to be a post-World Cup boom, but once the deal was structured such that the Reign had enough value to justify the risk, Seattle pulled the trigger. Western New York was left with the deal’s biggest star. Seattle got value for a name talent with role player’s value.
And if that leaves people scratching their heads, that may come down to perception. Leroux is a star on social media, not on the field. And if she had to be sacrificed to lure the type of impact player who would have been so valuable coming off the bench in last year’s final, it’s not difficult to see why Seattle signed off. The last time Leroux played for Seattle, after all, she was being pulled off for Bev Goebel.