Breaking down Racing Louisville’s off-season roster moves after draft night

“Today cannot have gone any better for Racing Louisville,” said general manager Ryan Dell after Friday’s 2024 National Women’s Soccer League College Draft. “We started the day by adding Arin Wright, an experienced defender who will have a big presence in our locker room, then we finished strong with four great selections. We’re so excited to get this preseason started, and I can’t wait to see how [head coach] Bev [Yanez] shapes and builds our team.”

The draft-night selections began with Reilyn Turner, an explosive forward from the University of California Los Angeles and the United States U-23 squad. She was selected with Racing’s top overall pick of the night, number six overall. Racing traded their next selection — the 15th overall pick — and $125,000 to the Chicago Red Stars to acquire the veteran Wright, a Kentucky native who has spent the last eight years with Chicago where she twice earned first or second Best XI honors and was a 2016 Defender of the Year finalist. With the 28th overall pick, Louisville selected Emma Sears, a forward from Ohio State. University of Iowa defender of former Racing W League player Sam Cary was selected with the 48th overall pick and Texas Tech goalkeeper Maddie White with the 54th. Racing also completed a tidy bit of business when they earned some of the money spent on Wright back by selling the final pick of the third round — 42nd overall — for $40,000 to the San Diego Wave. Historically, this is a surprisingly high amount for such a low pick.

In addition to the five draft night additions, Racing had previously signed free agent midfielder Marisa Viggiano, traded for defender Ellie Jean in a three-team deal with Bay FC and NJ/NY Gotham, and signed Japanese midfielder and former University of Kentucky standout Yuuka Kurosaki. They also recently announced new contracts for Kirsten Wright (formerly Davis) and Parker Goins.

As a result of Friday’s moves, Racing’s 2024 roster has finally started to take shape. Although new signings are inevitable, let’s take a look at where Racing stands post-draft and where they are still likely to bring in additional talent.

Reilyn Turner celebrates a goal with arm outstretch running of pitch in UCLA kit
Reilyn Turner / Image courtesy UCLA Athletics

Forward Momentum

The most pressing issue Racing has faced all off-season is a lack of forwards. Louisville lost a significant portion of their attackers when Thembi Kgatlana was transferred to Tigres Femenil, Paige Monaghan was lost to the Utah Royals in the expansion draft, and Nadia Nadim, Jessica McDonald, and Wang Shuang were not offered new contracts or moved on to other teams. While locking down Davis and Goins was certainly a positive, Racing still went into the draft with only three forwards listed on the roster. Considering consistent goal-scoring was the biggest need last season, this is understandably of huge concern for many Louisville fans.

As a result, the biggest win of the night is unquestionably the drafting of Reilyn Turner. The UCLA standout finished her collegiate career with 42 goals and 15 assists across four years. In 2022 she earned Most Outstanding Offensive Player accolades at the College Cup after scoring the game-winner against the University of Alabama in the semifinals and the tying goal against the University of North Carolina in the final with only 16 seconds remaining on the clock. This goal ultimately paved the way for UCLA to secure the championship. And, as a United States U-23 player, she was also quick to point out to Louisville’s communications team that she also scored on Racing during an NWSL preseason tournament in Portland in 2023.

“I scored against you guys!” exclaimed the new draftee with a big laugh during post-draft media. As for what she’ll bring to Louisville, Turner said, “I feel like I know what I’m good at and I know what I bring to the table. I’m excited for that to combine with what the players at Louisville and coaches at Louisville have in store for me. And I’m excited to be able to hopefully contribute to such a great program.”

Turner seems to have what it takes to be a day-one starter the way Emily Fox, Jaelin Howell, and Savannah DeMelo were in Racing Louisville’s previous draft classes. In fact, Dell said she’s so talented might have even been the first pick in another draft class in another year. To get a sense of what she can do on the pitch, just look up any game highlights from Turner at UCLA, Racing fans, and start imagining what she might look like receiving service from Carson Pickett or Savannah DeMelo. As a bonus, she’s excellent both centrally and out wide so she provides flexibility and versatility along the front line. In terms of both quality and need, Turner is an A+ acquisition for Racing and goes a long way in shoring up the biggest gaps in Louisville’s roster.

Although not as splashy as Turner, Buckeye Emma Sears is also a solid pickup for Racing. Dell said Sears “very well could have been one of the fastest players in this class” and Racing have liked her enough to have scouted her closely for the past two years.

A fast wide forward is exactly what Racing needs, especially in light of the losses of Monaghan and Kgatlana, so Sears also helps shore up one of the biggest areas of need on Racing’s roster. In her five years as a Buckeye, she scored 25 goals and 15 assists and was named to the All-Big 10 First Team in 2023. In a fun bit of trivia, she was also roommates with Racing midfielder Kayla Fischer back in Columbus.

Arin Wright in University of Kentucky gear
Arin Wright / Image courtesy UK Athletics

Defensive Upgrades

Although forwards were the biggest area of need for Racing, the signing of defender Arin Wright is still big news for Louisville.

A native of Nicholasville, KY, Wright was a standout at the University of Kentucky where she was a four-time All-SEC selection, a two-time MAC Hermann Trophy finalist, and a two-time All-American. She was ultimately the first Kentucky player to ever be selected in a professional women’s soccer draft. After being drafted by the Red Stars in 2015, she spent eight full seasons in Chicago where she twice earned first or second Best XI honors and was a 2016 Defender of the Year finalist. She was part of seven Chicago playoff teams, making two trips to the NWSL Championship, including starting in the 2021 final at Lynn Family Stadium where she notched an assist.

“Having the opportunity to come home to the beautiful Bluegrass State and give back to the community that developed me and encouraged me to chase my dreams of being a professional athlete is something that all athletes dream of,” Wright said in remarks released by the club. “I am grateful for all Kentucky has given me in my youth, and now it’s my turn to return the favor. It might not be UK blue, but red and blue make purple … right?! I couldn’t be more thrilled to join Racing Louisville and be a part of building a dynasty here in my old Kentucky home.”

Racing’s defense was their most improved line after a major overhaul that saw the additions of NWSL veterans Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett. The club only allowed 24 goals all season — a vast improvement over 35 allowed in 2022 and 40 in 2021 — and also posted six shutouts. The fact the team has now added both Wright and defender Ellie Jean to the roster provides depth that can help guarantee this line stays in top shape throughout the season. After all, despite their starting strength in 2023, depth was a major issue. After Pickett was injured and missed several games, Rebecca Holloway replaced her but when Holloway was injured, midfielder Maddie Pokorny was forced into playing outer back for the first time which was obviously less than ideal for everyone. And when Jaelin Howell was also injured, center-back Elli Pikkujämsä was pushed up in the No. 6 as well making the back line even thinner.

The fact both Wright and Jean can play centrally and out wide will be a big asset to the club if injuries occur again. It’ll also help facilitate rotation which might prevent injuries from happening in the first place. And with Holloway, Zaneta Wyne, and Satara Murray all departed from Racing last season, there’s no question that additional defensive signings were needed. In terms of NWSL experience, both Jean and Wright look to be strong upgrades to help round out Racing’s defense.

The drafting of Sam Cary from Iowa is, of course, another possibility to join the defense as well. It’s definitely a positive for the club to be able to draft a player who has come through their academy via the W League as Cary was a player on the 2022 squad, but signing players who are drafted in the third round is hardly guaranteed. Cary does have a ton of potential, however, after earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors with the Hawkeyes and leaving the program as its all-time minutes leader. She also made history as the first player from Iowa to be selected in the NWSL draft.

Marisa Viggiano dribbling in Houston kit
Marisa Viggiano / Image courtesy the NWSL

Midfielders, keepers, and everything else

While not filling as obvious of a need, the signings of midfielders Marisa Viggiano and Yuuka Kurosaki do hint at interesting possibilities as well. Ary Borges spent much of last season playing in a double pivot next to Jaelin Howell. While she did just fine in that role, Borges is a phenomenally gifted attacking talent and is arguably better utilized higher up the pitch. And on a team that’s clearly needing forwards, this is a great option to have.

Both Viggiano and Kurosaki in addition to already-rostered Baggett can play next to Howell and push Borges forward if Yanez still wants to utilize a double pivot. Viggiano, in particular, is an experienced NWSL starter and may have been signed to do just this. These players can also provide better coverage for Howell in case she’s out for any reason, as she was for an extended time at the end of last season which, again, provides some added depth that Racing had been lacking. So while they aren’t actual forward being signed, they do help provide a potential answer to the forward problem and the midfield depth problem at the same time.

The final draft pick of the evening for Racing was goalkeeper Maddie White who comes from Texas Tech. She was a first team All-American and Big 12 Goalkeeper of the Year. She earned All-Big 12 honors three different seasons and was Texas Tech’s all-time leader in shutouts (39) and goalkeeper wins (52). Even with the trade of Hillary Beall to the San Diego Wave, Racing still has three goalkeepers in Katie Lund, Jordyn Bloomer, and Olivia Sekany. White will have a tough battle to get on Racing’s roster, but competition is what pushes growth and she may be able to stage a coup and find her way onto the roster.

More on the way

After draft night, Racing is in a vastly improved position than they were ahead of it. The additions of Turner and Wright alone make it a win for Racing and if Sears, Cary, or White work out, too, all the better for the club. All in all, Dell and Yanez say they feel confident about the direction the club is heading in as preseason approaches. Forwards are still an area of need, to be sure, but both general manager and coach insist more announcements are coming very soon.

“We’ve done a lot of work to solidify our roster and to build it into the style play that Bev Yanez wants,” said Dell. “I’m so excited with what we’ve been able to accomplish. We have a few more pieces that we’re ready to announce, but at the end of the day, we’re in a really good spot. We think this team is ready to compete, as Bev likes to say, Monday through Friday, and win on Saturdays and Sundays. So we’re very excited by where we’re headed and ready to get started on January 22nd.”

As Dell said, more announcements are coming soon and this article will be updated as they are released.

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.