If there’s one possible takeaway from the first quarter of the 2023 NWSL season, it’s that the next generation of stars may have arrived a little early. With both salaries and endorsement opportunities rising to make professional soccer an increasingly viable career move, more and more players are forgoing college to jump right into life as a pro.
Up until 2021, the NWSL had barred players under 18 years old from signing with a club. Since then, the league has seen multiple teenagers join the league, including Thorns midfielder Olivia Moultrie, who took the NWSL to court over the age rule when she was 15.
These NWSL teenagers are doing more than just getting acclimated to their surroundings — they’re some of the most exciting performers in the league, and could be the foundation of the future of the U.S. women’s national team.
Alyssa Thompson isn’t the first player to forgo college to enter the NWSL draft, after Trinity Rodman did so in 2021 when she was 18 years old. Though Thompson never ended up playing for Stanford, the program she committed to, she was selected by Angel City FC as the No. 1 overall pick in 2023.
Thompson’s decision to make the jump to the pros has been an early example of opportunity meeting preparation. The teenager looks poised to earn a spot on the USWNT roster for the 2023 World Cup in the absence of Mallory Swanson, who tore her patella tendon last month.
Thompson possesses blistering speed with the ball at her feet and has looked comfortable as the center-point of the Angel City attack, having been thrown into the role as the team awaits the return of a number of veterans from injury. Her ability to finish is far beyond her years, as exemplified with her goal from a tight angle in Los Angeles’ 3-2 win over the Kansas City Current this past weekend.
ALYSSA THOMPSON 🤯Ridiculous goal from the 18-year-old 💥 pic.twitter.com/K1P9VEg8uW— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) May 8, 2023
ALYSSA THOMPSON 🤯Ridiculous goal from the 18-year-old 💥 pic.twitter.com/K1P9VEg8uW
The avenues that currently exist for teenagers to enter the NWSL likely wouldn’t exist if Olivia Moultrie hadn’t pushed the league forward in the first place. Moultrie made waves in 2019 when she gave up her college eligibility to sign with Nike and train with the Thorns at the age of 13.
Her road to playing league games for the Thorns was a bit longer, as Moultrie successfully sued the NWSL to allow her to join Portland’s roster in 2021. Since her debut, the midfielder has grown accustomed to the league’s physicality, becoming a player who can break lines with a single pass. She’s also become more trusting of her own field vision, trying higher risk passes and shots. That skill was on full display against the North Carolina Courage on Saturday, when she scored a fantastic equalizer from distance to salvage a point in a 3-3 draw.
🚨Olivia Moultrie banger alert🚨Thorns tie it for the third time this match... if you're not watching on Paramount+, tune in NOW! pic.twitter.com/WDYw0cxpAR— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) May 7, 2023
🚨Olivia Moultrie banger alert🚨Thorns tie it for the third time this match... if you're not watching on Paramount+, tune in NOW! pic.twitter.com/WDYw0cxpAR
“I think by the point that I was finally able to play, I just kind of felt ready for that moment,” she said after Saturday’s match. “I had been building and preparing for so long that I just didn’t even need to think about it anymore.”
Jaedyn Shaw also took a unique path to playing professional soccer, requiring an exception to the NWSL’s discovery rules to join the Wave in the middle of the 2022 season. Shaw had been training with the Washington Spirit for seven months before San Diego exercised a discovery bid to send the then-17-year-old to the West Coast.
Providing versatility to the San Diego offense, in tandem with the scoring prowess of Alex Morgan, Shaw scored a goal in each of her first three games as a professional in 2022 and has already matched that total in 2023. Shaw grew up playing futsal, the small-side indoor version of the sport that prioritizes technicality, and it shows in her innate ability to make defenders miss.
JAEDYN SHAW IS THE TRUTH 😱pic.twitter.com/SRJ7F1LwcL— San Diego Wave FC (@sandiegowavefc) March 26, 2023
JAEDYN SHAW IS THE TRUTH 😱pic.twitter.com/SRJ7F1LwcL
Shaw can play as a No. 10, a false No. 9 or a straight-up central attacker, and her interplay with her teammates is as underrated as her scoring ability is obvious. On numerous occasions, she’s earned praise from Wave head coach Casey Stoney, who noted her as a player to watch before the season even began.
Ricketts signed a three-year contract with the Washington Spirit roster after training with the team in the 2023 preseason. Ricketts was the first player to sign with an NWSL club under the league’s new U-18 entry mechanism, which allows NWSL teams to sign players under the age of 18 with the consent of a parent or guardian.
Rather than deferring to discovery rights, which could subject a player to traveling across the country or an entry draft of some kind, current U-18 signees have a certain amount of protection from the NWSL’s parity rules. They can’t be traded or waived as a minor without parental consent, and they’re immune from any expansion drafts before they turn 18.
Youngest signed player in NWSL history 🤯The Washington Spirit has signed 15-year-old midfielder Chloe Ricketts to a three-year deal.📸 @WashSpirit pic.twitter.com/jwC4PZgeOr— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) March 3, 2023
Youngest signed player in NWSL history 🤯The Washington Spirit has signed 15-year-old midfielder Chloe Ricketts to a three-year deal.📸 @WashSpirit pic.twitter.com/jwC4PZgeOr
Those protections are key, as the NWSL has reckoned with player safety measures for a number of years. U-18 players must also live with a parent or guardian during the duration of the season with their NWSL club. Ricketts has thrived in the Spirit’s system as a creative midfielder, looking strong in multiple substitute appearances.
Barcenas is currently the youngest player to ever see the field in an NWSL game, beating out Ricketts by a number of days after entering the league through the same U-18 mechanism. The Wave have made it clear that they don’t want to place undue pressure on the 15-year-old, who so far has made two regular-season appearances as a late-game substitute.
Barcenas’ development with the Wave is fitting for the San Diego native, who spoke at the team’s launch announcement as a 13-year-old.
“I think it’s really awesome to see opportunities for girls my age and generations after to have an opportunity to represent their own hometown team,” she said in 2021.
“She’s creative and she’s an exceptional talent. She’s still obviously only 15, so we need to look after her,” Casey Stoney said after her debut on April 29. “I think she’s a player that’s going to get people off their seats and a player that people want to come watch. It’s an exciting future for her.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.