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These NWSL teenagers could be the future of the USWNT

San Diego’s Melanie Barcenas became the youngest player to play in an NWSL game in April at the age of 15. (David Frerker/USA TODAY Sports)

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, 18, Angel City FC

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.

Olivia Moultrie, 17, Portland Thorns

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.

“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, 18, San Diego Wave

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.

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.

Chloe Ricketts, 15, Washington Spirit

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.

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.

Melanie Barcenas, 15, San Diego Wave

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.

JWS Launches ‘The Gold Standard’ Hosted by Olympians Kelley O’Hara & Lisa Leslie

the gold standard logo
'The Gold Standard' is just one of three new JWS shows tackling the Summer Olympics.

Just Women's Sports announced three new digital series on Thursday, headlined by The Gold Standard, a new studio show hosted by Olympic gold medalists and women's sports icons Kelley O'Hara and Lisa Leslie.

USWNT and NWSL great O'Hara, a two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and bronze medalist, is teaming up with three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, herself a four-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, to bring viewers inside the world of Olympic women's sports. The pair will record each episode in-studio, with a series of special guests joining them throughout the show's run.

An insider's view of the Summer Games

The Gold Standard will debut on July 27th and cover the biggest women's sports stories from the Paris Olympics, giving fans a unique perspective by tapping into the insights and opinions of two legendary Olympians. 

"I know first-hand just how exciting and intense the Olympic Games can be," Leslie told JWS. "This show gives us a chance as athletes to bring fans closer to the experience, by sharing our unique insights into the Games. And with all the momentum we're seeing in women's sports, now is the perfect time to have a show dedicated to the biggest women's sports moments at the Olympic Games." 

"I can still remember watching the '96 Olympics and knowing that I wanted to be on that stage one day," says O'Hara. "Having the chance to compete in the Olympics and win gold was one of the highlights of my career. I'm looking forward to being a fan this time around and getting the chance to share my own perspective on the Games' biggest stories. Having teamed with Just Women's Sports before, I know this will be content that resonates with fans." 

The Gold Standard will live on Just Women's Sports' YouTube page, with select social cuts distributed across JWS digital platforms. The six-episode show will run through August 13th.

uswnt stars kelley o'hara and jaedyn shaw on jws digital series 1v1
1v1 with Kelley O'Hara will focus on USWNT players as they prep for the 2024 Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

Additional series focus on USWNT's Olympic run

The Gold Standard is just one of three upcoming JWS series designed to invite fans to experience the Summer Games from an Olympian's point of view, with additional series zeroing in on the USWNT's 2024 Olympic run.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, JWS will launch the latest edition of 1v1, with host Kelley O'Hara interviewing three of her USWNT teammates: Emily Sonnett, Jaedyn Shaw, and Rose Lavelle. These peer-to-peer interviews provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the USWNT's preparation for their first major tournament under new manager Emma Hayes.

To round things out, JWS is also bringing back its award-winning series, The 91st. This tournament's edition will be hosted by retired USWNT star and World Cup champion Jessica McDonald alongside noted soccer personalities Jordan Angeli and Duda Pavão. The 91st will follow the USWNT as it looks to go for gold against a stacked international field at the Paris Olympics — including reigning World Cup winners Spain.

Each new digital series leans on the expertise of its accomplished hosts and special guest stars, providing fans with candid, personality-driven commentary surrounding this summer's biggest event.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

The Late Sub Podcast: This Is Sophia Smith’s USWNT Attack Now

Sophia Smith dribbles during the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico last Saturday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins breaks down the days leading up to the first USWNT Olympic send-off friendly, discussing player performances, things that worked well on the pitch, and what still needs developing as coach Emma Hayes's team moves towards a crucial Olympic competition set to will dictate the future of the team.

She then sets her sights on the WNBA, previewing WNBA All-Star Weekend and chatting with Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Joyce Edwards alongside Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

USWNT Looks to Extend Winning Streak in Final Olympic Send-Off

USWNT striker Sophia Smith dribbles through Costa Rican defenders during a 2022 Concacaf W Championship game.
The USWNT last took on Costa Rica at the 2022 Concacaf Championship semifinal. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT’s last tune-up match before the Olympics has arrived, with the FIFA world No. 5 US looking for an 18th-straight all-time win over No. 44 Costa Rica tonight at Washington, DC's Audi Field.

Just three days after a redemptive 1-0 victory over No. 29 Mexico, head coach Emma Hayes’s Paris-bound roster appears to be finding its stride. Calling Saturday’s win "a step in the right direction," Hayes went on to say, "I think we’re only scratching the surface. I think there’s a lot of layers to go from everyone."

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 13: USWNT coach Emma Hayes stands on the field before a game between Mexico and USWNT
The new-look USWNT is looking to hit its stride after several matches under Hayes. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's USWNT is still finding its footing

With their first Olympic group stage game against No. 64 Zambia slated for July 25th, the new-look USWNT — which features the youngest roster in 16 years — is working to define its style of play.

While the USWNT’s signature ability to score in transition remains a strong point, the team also acknowledged their shaky first half on Saturday, with midfielder Rose Lavelle commenting that they're "working on being a little more tactically flexible... We’re trying to, as a group, learn how to adjust on the fly and be a little smarter with our adjustments during the games."

The patience required to choose their moments, along with the team’s ability to read and anticipate each other's movements, is clutch to increasing effectiveness in the areas where the USWNT appeared most disjointed against Mexico.

At stake is an Olympic podium finish, where the US hopes to improve on their bronze medal performance in Tokyo — but the team also aims to make a splash amidst their increasingly sophisticated opponents.

Costa Rica captain Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez chases the ball during a match against Panama in 2020.
Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez, Costa Rica's captain, is the only NWSL on their Olympic roster. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Rodriguez leads a rising Costa Rica team

If improving offensive unity and production is tonight’s goal, Las Ticas could provide the ideal matchup: In their 17 previous meetings, the USWNT has outscored Costa Rica 90-2 overall.

That said, Costa Rica has switched things up since the sides last met in July 2022, with the US defeating the Central American squad 3-0 in the Concacaf Championship semifinal. Las Ticas competed in the 2023 World Cup and reached the Gold Cup quarterfinals earlier this year, where they narrowly fell to No. 8 Canada in extra time.

Costa Rica is captained by 30-year-old Angel City midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, the lone NWSL player on their roster and, in 2015, the first Costa Rica national to ever score in a Women's World Cup.

In addition to maintaining a perfect record against Costa Rica, the USWNT will look to extend their current unbeaten streak to nine, which includes three shutouts in Hayes’s first three matches at the helm.

Lindsay Horan drinks water before the USWNT's match against Ireland in April 2023.
An excessive heat warning is in effect for Washington, DC today. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Where to watch the USWNT vs. Costa Rica friendly

Expect some hydration breaks due to DC's scorching temperatures during tonight’s 7:30 PM ET match, airing live on TNT and streaming on Peacock.

TruTV and Max will simultaneously air the first-ever USWNT altcast, hosted by retired USWNT star Sam Mewis, former USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn, and Men in Blazers founder Roger Bennett.

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