How the Kansas City Current landed Debinha, the NWSL’s top free agent

There was always one key name at the top of every list of NWSL free agents this offseason: Debinha. In December, the rumor mill started churning with her name linked to top European teams; days later, she announced that she would not return to the North Carolina Courage, her team for the last six seasons.

On Monday, the winner of the Debinha sweepstakes was finally revealed to be the Kansas City Current. Debinha has now signed a two-year contract through the 2024 season with a mutual option for the 2025 season.

“I chose KC for the whole project they presented me with and where they want to be in the next few years and that came in line with what I want and believe,” Debinha told The Athletic. “Being in a competitive team, which fights for titles, has its own training structure and soon its own stadium, are things that I think are very important and that made my eyes shine. I hope to contribute a lot to the team in pursuit of the goals, I will do my best and I know that being in a team where I feel good and happy, this will help me to continue to evolve with my football and be recognized for my work.”

“Obviously, she was sought after by I think just about everyone,” Current general manager Camille Levin Ashton told The Athletic. “There was a lot of competition for her. What makes this really special for us, and a big statement for us, is that she had all those options and chose to come here to Kansas City and be a part of what we’re building. We continue to build on the success that we had last year, obviously falling short, and she’s a winner. She wants to bring championships to Kansas City.”

It’s another blockbuster piece of business for the Current, having already added former Chicago Red Stars midfielders Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo via free agency in December. They also added Swedish forward Mimmi Larsson via FC Rosengard right before the holiday break, and have announced a trio of returning defenders on new contracts in Alex Loera, Hailie Mace and Kate Del Fava.

Debinha is a statement signing for Kansas City, but this is also a major win for the NWSL as a league and for the first year of free agency under the new collective bargaining agreement with the NWSL Players Association. A top player had freedom of movement, and elected to stay. They might not always fall this way for the NWSL moving forward, but Monday’s news provides a case study that NWSL clubs can use to retain talent — as long as they’re willing to dig into those pockets.

Levin Ashton declined to get into the specific numbers of Debinha’s contract, noting that she was unable to make any definitive statement about whether Debinha was now the top-paid player in the NWSL as she did not have specific numbers from other teams. With as much attention and interest as she got this NWSL offseason, though, it’s clear that Debinha secured the bag.

“Our value of her, and what we honestly believe the global soccer community values ​​her, as she is one of the best players in this league and in the world – we think that the salary we provided her reflects that,” Levin Ashton said.

For Kansas City, the investment goes beyond just a contract, considering the team’s training facilities and soccer-specific stadium in the process of being built. Those are certainly factors for any player, not just a big name, along with player health and safety. But the Current has shown that even with great investment and dedication, no team is without room for improvement when it comes to player health and safety. The final report from the NWSL/NWSL Players Association joint investigation, released in December, detailed reports concerning former head coach Huw Williams, potential retaliation, and ownership’s awareness of these issues. While the team confirmed that Williams had left the team entirely by 2022, their statement in December did not address his re-assignment to a technical role or his departure at all.

As with every NWSL team, time will determine whether the Current has been successful in building and ensuring a safe culture. It’s impossible to overlook this factor when discussing retaining and attracting top players in the league, and the Current will have to live up to their promise to improve player safety.

“Every decision we make as a club will continue to focus on the advancement of our players, the NWSL and women’s professional soccer,” the December statement said.

(UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, the NWSL did not issue any corrective actions against the Current as part of a large announcement of individual and collective sanctions, noting “there is no finding that the club retaliated against players.”)

On the field, the first order of business is another crack at a NWSL championship. This time with a different, better ending. Last year’s final appearance for the Current was shockingly flat; Debinha’s NWSL experience — even with the major demands of a World Cup year — is a clear-cut solution to make sure that never happens again.

Debinha joined the league in January 2017 as a new signing for the Western New York Flash. Even she didn’t expect the team’s sudden relocation to North Carolina, but her time with the Courage was productive: Two NWSL championships, three NWSL shields, the 2018 Women’s ICC and the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup. Somehow, she’s only made the NWSL Best XI once, in 2022, but she picked up MVP honors for the 2019 Championship game, as well as back-to-back Challenge Cup MVP awards in 2021 and 2022.

But before the Current could start thinking about how Debinha could help them lift a trophy, first they had to make sure she was actually a free agent. She was one of 22 players who had a team option for the 2023 season, and an independent arbitration process was required to determine who had the legalities of the contract situation right: the players or the league.

Kansas City knew there would be competition. As Levin Ashton said, “Internally, we looked at that list and Debinha’s name stood out to us the same way as it stood out to everyone, both in this league and internationally.”

In October, Debinha and the rest of the disputed free agents were deemed to be on the following market a win at arbitration. New contracts could not be signed until November 15, but as soon as that decision came through, Debinha immediately became a highly coveted target.

“Once we had clarity on (her free agency status), I reached out to her agent to express interest,” Levin Ashton said. “Conversations really kicked off from that point right away. Obviously, a lot of conversations were had. I think what’s important to note is that it was very serious for us from the get-go.”

The Current had to balance trying to land the biggest free agent on the market with other necessary roster moves ahead of the 2023 season. At the same time conversations were ongoing with Debinha’s representation, they were also working on signing Gautrat and DiBernardo.

“The truth is you’re going through these negotiations with a player, with an agent, getting to know them,” said Levin Ashton. “They’re getting to know us, and the club and the personnel we have here. Until a player signs, you don’t know their decision. So you have to balance. Morgan and Vanessa were two huge signings and very important players to this roster, so it was just looking at both (deals) simultaneously.”

The 2023 NWSL salary cap number has not been released yet by the league, but as of 2022, it was $1.1 million. While specific numbers for top salaries across the league are still few and far between, we know that Washington Spirit forward Trinity Rodman signed a then record four-year contract worth a reported $1.1 million. The salary cap is determined by team owners via the board of governors, and while the number will surely increase for 2023, it remains to be seen how much (at least publicly).

“Our hope was that all of this panned out, which is what happened, but we had to look at the budget and account for all things at the same time, with the goal of everything coming through,” Levin Ashton said.

By December, Debinha’s name was linked to top European clubs, primarily Arsenal, but also Barcelona, ​​PSG and Manchester United, per a report from Rob Pratley and ATA Football. Only days later, the Courage announced that Debinha had elected to leave and explore other options.

“We made a significant offer and certainly every attempt to keep her here in North Carolina,” chief soccer officer Curt Johnson said in the Courage’s release. “In our conversations, though, it became clear that – despite a deep love for this club and this community – she finds it in her best interest to continue her professional career elsewhere and we wish her nothing but the best.”

At least one other NWSL club was seriously in the hunt to sign Debinha. The Athletic‘s Steph Yang reported last week that the Orlando Pride is stockpiling allocation money to bring in some major names — with Debinha at the top of their list. They extended a contract offer.

“According to the source, this contract offer would have made Debinha one of, if not the highest-paid player in the league,” Yang reported, but that source thought Debinha was more interested in Europe, not only for salary purposes but for the potential profile boost Champions League appearances could provide.

On the Kansas City front, Levin Ashton said the Champions League — or how it might help Debinha raise her international profile — never came up in their conversations with her or her agent, Benito Pedace of Sow Sports.

“I think everyone understands the value (of the Champions League) and that players want to play in the Champions League,” Levin Ashton said. “At the end of the day, when we look at the NWSL as a whole, this league is the most competitive league in the world. It has been, and that has not changed. Players who want to be the best and want to continue to get better and prove themselves, being in the NWSL, you have to prove yourself week after week, game after game.”

According to Pedace, Sow Sports held conversations with multiple NWSL clubs, as well as clubs in Europe and Brazil, to determine who was the best fit for what Debinha was looking for.

“Not everyone entered the final stretch of decision-making,” Pedace told The Athletic“and she ended up choosing to stay in the league, knowing that she will have new challenges, will have a great structure for her to continue evolving and doing what she loves most, which is playing football at a high level in a league she knows and knows that every season the teams get more and more competitive.”

Even as the speculation surrounding Debinha’s landing spot swirled, particularly around Arsenal, the Current was inching closer to a deal. In the end, maybe there was a little bit of seasonal magic working in their favor, too. According to Levin Ashton: “The holiday time is when everything officially fell into place and everything got signed.”

He said that Debinha still hopes to play in Europe in the future, and there is still time for the 31-year-old to accomplish that. But she felt she wasn’t done with the NWSL yet.

“She still wants a lot in the league, and we know that KC will help her and she will help KC.”

Even with Monday’s statement signing of Debinha, and all the other offseason moves, don’t rule out the current continuing to work on the roster ahead of the 2023 season.

“Don’t get me in trouble for this one,” Levin Ashton said, laughing, when asked about the possibility of moving ahead of the NWSL draft this week. As of Monday, the Current won’t pick until the No. 15 overall selection. The top of the draft class is stacked though, and there’s been some movement already following last week’s four-team trade allowing Angel City to position themselves to draft forward Alyssa Thompson.

“There’s still a little bit more time,” was all Levin Ashton would say. “There’s obviously going to be additions and some changes with the draft naturally. We feel so confident in this group that we have, but my job is to look for players that fit what we’re doing and this vision. If there’s a player out there who does that, then that’s always open for discussion. So I think that’s where we are at right now.”

(Photo: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports)

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