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Arizona forwards Jada Talley, Jill Aguilera grateful but surprised to be acquired by NWSL teams

Photos courtesy Arizona Athletics

Arizona forwards Jada Talley and Jill Aguilera have been acquired by NWSL teams, with Talley’s rights going to Racing Louisville FC and Aguilera’s to the Chicago Red Stars.

They were not selected in the 2021 NWSL Draft on Jan. 13 and, thus, were immediately placed on waivers, free for any team to scoop up.

Getting claimed wasn’t actually something they envisioned, though. They didn’t even declare for the draft in the first place.

“We didn’t register, we didn’t put our name in it, none of that,” Talley said. “We didn’t really want to get chosen.”

With the NCAA soccer season postponed from the fall to the spring, the NWSL amended its rules so that all college seniors were automatically eligible for the 2021 draft whether they formally declared or not. It also made them ineligible for the 2022 draft.

That was a controversial measure enacted just days before the picks started rolling in. Talley was unaware that she was ineligible for 2022 until draft night when one of the commentators mentioned it on the league’s live stream.

“Literally at like 11 p.m., midnight I was like, ‘wait, what? I’m ineligible? Are you kidding me?’” Talley said. “That was kind of like a slap in the face because I think I definitely would have pushed harder in the draft, and I do think one of us or both of us would have got drafted.”

It was a similar reaction for Aguilera, who learned that she was on waivers the day after the draft when Arizona head coach Tony Amato informed her over the phone.

“We were all really confused,” she said.

While a stunning development, getting claimed doesn’t change much for their immediate futures. Talley and Aguilera still plan to play for the Wildcats this spring and fall. The NWSL received an NCAA exemption that allows rookies to do that if they so choose.

Aguilera is pursuing a master’s degree in real estate development and will be Arizona soccer’s first-ever sixth-year senior this fall. Talley is planning to work toward some sort of graduate certificate, one that she can complete by the end of the fall semester.

They know there is no guarantee that they will ever suit up for their respective NWSL teams—“everybody still has to go in and earn a contract anyway,” Aguilera noted—but getting claimed does have them feeling better about life after Arizona soccer.

“Now I don’t feel like I’m like, ‘OK, what the hell am I going to do after college?” Talley said. “I feel like I have [Louisville FC] to at least go see and go try to work for a contract and I have that as an option. So they’re kind of making me feel less stressed out.”

Talley had a Zoom call with Louisville last Friday where they explained why they claimed her and what they want to see from her this season. Aguilera said she had a similar conversation with one of Chicago’s assistant coaches.

Amato had informed NWSL teams that Talley and Aguilera were planning to stay in school, but that wasn’t going to stop them from claiming the UA forwards. A lot of players were in the same boat. Even many who were drafted.

Aguilera said the Red Stars are OK with her joining the organization next winter. She said they could even loan her to a European club if she does not make their roster as a rookie.

“That’s still an amazing opportunity to be able to be linked with the Stars,” she said.

Talley is grateful for her opportunity too, but is still holding out hope that the NWSL will alter its rules so that seniors like her and Aguilera are eligible for the 2022 draft.

“So I can show you that you missed out on a draft pick,” she said.

Unless that happens, Talley and Aguilera belong to their new clubs, who will monitor them closely this spring and fall. That is good for them and their Arizona teammates.

“It’s just more chances for everyone to get looked at,” Talley explained. “So I think nothing bad can come from this situation. It’s really only up from here. All that can happen is we keep scoring goals, me or Jill gets (Pac-12) Player of the Year, and it could open our options up even more. This is just the beginning.”

If Talley and Aguilera do manage to break into the NWSL, they would become the first UA field players to ever play in the league. Former goalkeeper Lainey Burdett was a backup for the Orlando Pride in 2019 after joining them as an undrafted free agent.

That means a lot to them since they believe Arizona soccer has been overlooked. The Wildcats have never had a player drafted into the NWSL despite being a top-20 program over the last five years.

“I feel like Arizona gets no credit and I feel like we put in so much work and people just look over it because no one’s on the national team here, and it’s Arizona, it’s not UCLA, which is really frustrating because we give everybody a run for their money,” Talley said. “We’ll beat you on a good day, so I feel like it’s about time we started getting some recognition. It’s a good starting block. It’s good for our teammates to know that you can go somewhere from this program.”

“It will help with recruiting too,” Aguilera added.

In the meantime, Talley and Aguilera are focused on making the most of what’s left of their college careers. They should form a formidable duo again this spring and fall.

They were Arizona’s leading scorers in 2019, netting 10 and nine goals, respectively. It was the first time two UA players have scored nine or more goals in the same season.

That firepower was instrumental in Arizona reaching the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year, the longest streak in program history.

Aguilera has 15 goals in three healthy seasons, tied for 10th-most in Arizona history. The left-footer redshirted as a freshman after tearing her ACL and has steadily improved ever since.

It’s been more of a meteoric rise for the speedy Talley, who has 18 goals in three seasons, tied for sixth-most in Arizona history. She considers herself to be a three-year senior because of how little she played as a freshman, when she scored one goal as a bench player.

Now she only needs 15 more to break Mallory Miller’s all-time record, a realistic feat now that Talley has the spring and fall to pad her stats.

That, among other reasons, is why she would have returned to Arizona even if she had been drafted.

“I feel like I have more to do here,” she said. “I feel like I have more confidence to build here. I feel like I worked over the December break with my old coach and I need to go show that. And I just feel like I need to come into that professional setting as ready as I can be. I feel like I’m only like 75 percent there. I feel like, if thrown into a game, I would definitely be OK. But I want to go and set myself up in the best way I can, and I think that’s playing here.”

Aguilera sees it the same way.

“As soon as I stop playing here, I’m ineligible,” she said. “Now, we have guaranteed playing time, we’re improving. And then once we’re ready, once we have nothing left at Arizona, then we know we can go [to the NWSL].”