The stage was set under the roof of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Friday morning.
It housed a nervous atmosphere for former UCLA midfielder Sarah Killion as she and several other recently graduated women’s soccer players waited for their dreams to become a reality.
“To hear your name called and just walk up there, it was such an incredible experience,” Killion said. “It’s something that I’ll never forget.”
Killion’s ensuing speech after being picked No. 2 overall by Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League’s third annual Collegiate Draft signified that the midfielder was officially a few months removed from a future of playing soccer at a professional level.
UCLA’s women’s soccer program already made league history by producing the NWSL’s No. 1 overall pick, Zakiya Bywaters, in its inaugural draft in 2013. But the 2015 draft was once again a hit for UCLA, as a total of six players were selected in the 36-pick draft, eclipsing Stanford’s next-highest total of three players drafted.
Immediately following Killion were defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielder Sam Mewis, who were drafted No. 3 and 4 respectively by the Western New York Flash.
Defender Megan Oyster was drafted by the Washington Spirit at No. 13, along with fellow defender Caprice Dydasco, who was taken by the Spirit at No. 19, while goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland was picked by FC Kansas City at No. 17.
The 2015 NWSL draft precedes the league’s third season, which commences in early April and will consist of a truncated 20-game schedule to cater to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015.
The third iteration of the United States’ professional women’s soccer league came after its predecessors, the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, folded in 2003 and 2012 respectively.
“Growing up, the league was just so off and on,” Killion said. “I knew maybe going out of college someday that there might not be a league and I just might have to deal with that and move on or just try to keep playing in the summer league teams.”
In a bid to maintain its stability as a professional soccer league, the NSWL spawned a business model where the salaries of American, Canadian and Mexican national team players would be paid for by the chief soccer governing bodies of their respective countries. The initiative serves as both a means to subsidize league operations and maintain national-team caliber talent playing in the continent.
In the NWSL’s first two seasons, the growing league landed TV deals with Fox Sports affiliates in 2013 and ESPN affiliates in 2014 to broadcast a limited schedule of its games, while its average stadium was filled with an average attendance of 4,187 fans.
The addition of the six UCLA players, all of whom played a starting role in the game that broke the regular season attendance record for a regular season college women’s soccer game, could possibly help with the NWSL’s push for popularity as the former Bruins take the next step of their lives as professional soccer players.
“All of us, we’ve worked so hard our entire lives and put so much time, money and effort into becoming great soccer players. If you can play professionally at the next level, it’s the next step you want to take,” Killion said. “It’s something that I set my mind to and I’ve always wanted since day one – even when I was a little girl.”
As Dahlkemper was announced as the third pick in the 2015 NWSL draft, the pre-draft anxiety the former UCLA player said she recalled was replaced by feelings of relief and humility.
The Western New York Flash, the team that drafted Dahlkemper, was, however, still on the board, now with the No. 4 pick. There was still one question lingering in the defender’s mind: Whose name would be next?
“I definitely was hoping that they’d pick Sam,” Dahlkemper said.
Back in a hotel room in Los Angeles, Mewis’ eyes were fixed on her Twitter feed. Unable to attend the draft due to a training camp with the USWNT, Mewis received the news that both she and her teammate were waiting for from the other side of the country.
She would go No. 4.
“I’m really relieved that I have someone really close to me that I can start this journey with,” Mewis said. “I know that me and Abby will play really well together.”
Though it was likely more of a coincidence than a certainty that their professional careers would begin together, Dahlkemper and Mewis have shared some similarities during their time at UCLA.
The former UCLA defender and midfielder were the only two Bruins named on the 2014 National Soccer Coaches Association of America first team, while also being the two most recent recipients of the Honda Sports Award for soccer with Dahlkemper winning the award in 2013-14 and Mewis receiving it in 2014-15.
But for 2015, what the two players share might just be a residence in the state of New York.
“It definitely feels way more comfortable and I’ve just decided we’re going to try and live together,” Dahlkemper said. “Being able to be with someone that I know so well will definitely make the transition easier.”