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NWSL phenom Jaedyn Shaw wants to break ceilings

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Jaedyn Shaw, 18, plays well beyond her years for the NWSL's San Diego Wave. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Jaedyn Shaw has looked like a seasoned professional in her second year with the San Diego Wave, but nothing could quite prepare the 18-year-old for a new challenge earlier this season. Shaw scored the opening goal in an April 29 game against the Orlando Pride, her third of the season, and most memorably played against Brazil and NWSL legend Marta for the first time.

“I was like, oh my gosh, so starstruck, trying not to freak out in the middle of the game,” she told Just Women’s Sports in May, a big smile breaking out on her face. “I had her jersey and all that stuff.”

Shaw wants to be just like the legendary Brazilian No. 10 someday, but her ambitions as a professional soccer player go far beyond one singular idol. She also wants to be able to dribble the ball like Neymar, and drop a pass on a dime like Kevin de Bruyne.

“I feel like players that brought a lot of joy to me when I was younger,” she says.

In her first full season as a professional, Shaw is already well on her way to building her own name in NWSL and U.S. women’s national team circles. Wave manager Casey Stoney has described her as a player whose “vision and ability to pick a pass that breaks a backline is some of the best I’ve seen in the game, and I’ve been in the game a long time.”

She’s earned equally high praise from teammates already starring for the U.S. women’s national team, and she’d like to join them there someday.

“I think Jae’s gonna be so good. I mean, she’s already so good,” says USWNT and Wave defender Naomi Girma. “I think she’s gonna get so much better, so she’s an exciting one to watch.”

When she lists her idols, there is joyful irony in Shaw talking about herself as a young player in the past tense, as she was once one of the youngest signings in NWSL history. The league only opened up pathways to roster spots for players under the age of 18 in 2021, after then-15-year-old Olivia Moultrie took the NWSL to court in order to sign with the Portland Thorns.

Since Moultrie’s fateful ruling, the NWSL’s youth movement has been in full effect. Shaw entered the league in the middle of 2022 as a 17-year-old, scoring a goal in her first three professional appearances. Now, she’s not even the youngest player on the Wave anymore. That honor goes to 15-year-old Melanie Barcenas, who became the league’s new youngest signing in March.

A new generation of women’s soccer players making the decision to forgo college eligibility to sign with professional clubs has raised eyebrows in the U.S., where custom has dictated that you get your degree first, then go play pro soccer. In the early days of the NWSL, the monetary value of a college scholarship from a top program easily outweighed the salaries offered in the league, and pro careers were short.

Times — and salaries — have changed, with more players making the jump and showing a faith in the stability of the NWSL that did not always exist. For Shaw, it was always a matter of not if, but when.

“I feel like in the back of my head, I had always wanted to go pro,” she says. “Whether it was one year of college and then pro, whatever, do the full four years, which wouldn’t have been likely for me. I feel like I would have really wanted to push my ceilings early.”

Before Shaw joined San Diego, her desire to push her ceilings had already taken her all over the world. In her early years playing soccer, she primarily developed as an indoor player. As a child, she went to Brazil to train with girls and boys at Santos FC and flew to Barcelona to play football tournaments, before switching to outdoor soccer around the age of 12, as she remembers it.

“My biggest thing was always, I always played with boys, whatever level it was. And that was one of the main things that would change whatever club that I was playing for,” Shaw says. “I’d be at a club and they’d be like, ‘No, you can’t train with the boys because they’re academy’ or whatever. So I had to go to another club.”

Shaw’s experiences playing with boys also shaped the way she understood the professional pipeline. It’s not uncommon in men’s soccer for players to sign with pro clubs as teenagers and then develop through an academy system or with a club’s senior team.

“​​I guess I saw it so much with the boy’s side that I was just like, ‘Oh, I can just try it, or just maybe make my own path,’” she says.

(Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That path hasn’t always been linear. Shaw originally committed to playing for the University of North Carolina, ultimately making the decision to go pro once that became a viable reality. She then lived in Washington, D.C. for a time, training with the Washington Spirit as the club worked on entry pathways for the teenager.

Rather than having to go all the way to court, Shaw was able to sign with an NWSL team through a unique discovery process (the NWSL has since formalized a separate rule for U18 players to sign directly with clubs).

The only trouble with Shaw’s discovery process was that the team first in line for her playing rights wasn’t the Spirit but the San Diego Wave, who sat atop the league’s discovery list. Rather than Washington signing Shaw directly, they had to pursue a trade for her rights for reportedly up to $250,000, and those talks fell through after the Wave signed her themselves.

The process has been taxing for a teenager, and at some point Shaw had no choice but to block out the noise and focus on what she could control every day in training.

“I lean on my mom a lot,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Mom, you be the bridge between all the stuff that’s going on out there and what’s going on on the field.’ And I think that helped me a lot to just fill that gap.”

Shaw found a very welcoming club environment when she arrived at the Wave, and her whole family has now relocated to San Diego, with her sister the most recent transplant to join Shaw, her brother and her parents on the West Coast. Group pastimes include family bowling outings, seeking out new restaurants to try and a lot of time hanging out at home. Shaw graduated from high school in 2022 and anticipates taking college classes in her own time as she continues to settle into her pro career.

For now, she’s enjoying finally having the clarity of just getting to be a full-time soccer player.

“I think a lot of it was just me not overhyping games and stuff. And just like knowing that I belong where I am, I deserve to be here,” she says.

That clarity has allowed the versatile attacker to continue to carve out her place on the field, showing off facets of her game that make her a valued starter for her club. Shaw was first introduced to NWSL fans as a winger, but this season she has taken on a more traditional playmaking role in the attacking midfield while San Diego deals with absences due to injury.

The switch has actually positioned Shaw closer to the 10, her preferred spot on the pitch. Stoney has recognized her innate ability to exploit certain pockets of space, which can sometimes dictate where she lines up.

“She has an exceptional turn when she can get turned in the pockets and play forward, and we’ve got forwards that love to play with her because she can get you in on goal,” Stoney says.

San Diego at times employs a very direct style of play, which means that the players tasked with holding and progressing the ball are trusted to make quick decisions on the risk level and tempo of their passes. It’s a freedom that can be both exhilarating and daunting, and a level Shaw pushes herself to every game.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to bring to the game yet [in 2022],” she says. “I feel like now I can kind of have more freedom and just grow into the game and be able to direct and just create plays.”

She shares that freedom with Girma, who is usually tasked with springing play forward from the backline.

“I think me and her work well together, just like her movement into the pocket, and me being able to find her,” Girma says. “When you’re dribbling up the field or starting the attack, when you see the movement of your midfielders and forwards, I think it only makes it easier to break teams down.”

Stoney sees the similarities between Girma and Shaw, and believes that her young star’s national recognition will only grow with time. Shaw is already a decorated member of the USWNT U-20 squad, winning U.S. Soccer’s Young Player of the Year award in 2022 after shining at the U-20 World Cup.

“It’s great, unbelievable, [that] I’ve got a center-back that can solve pressure, and I’ve got a 10 or a wide player in Jaedyn that can solve pressure and play forward,” Stoney says.

“Obviously the national team recognition is going to keep coming if she keeps performing. And we need to make sure that we look after her on and off the field, because she’s still an 18-year-old and she’s still young, and we need to make sure that she’s ready for everything that comes her way.”

Shaw was named 2022 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year after leading the USWNT at the U-20 World Cup. (Hector Vivas - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

From playing futsal in Brazil to planning surfing goal celebrations with Alex Morgan, Shaw is ready for wherever her unique path takes her next. After playing her way into the larger USWNT roster conversation this year, Shaw was not named to the 2023 World Cup roster announced Wednesday but would like to be in the running for U.S. camps following the tournament.

“You can see her growing into her role, growing more confident as she’s been playing more minutes and has taken on a bigger role on the team,” Girma says. “And I think she’s handled that really well and has kind of taken it in stride.”

Whether she’s playing next to or against her idols next, Shaw says this year is “all soccer, all the time,” and she’s looking forward to the next challenge.

“Throughout my journey in general, I always loved the high-pressure situations. I always loved the super scrappy games and the sidelines going crazy,” she says, with the same ambition that landed her in San Diego leading the way.

“I want to break ceilings, and I want to be someone that can change the women’s game and help the younger players coming up after me.”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.