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.

Melanie Barcenas, 15, made her NWSL debut on Saturday night, becoming the youngest player in league history to log game minutes. Barcenas played 19 minutes in San Diego’s 3-1 loss to the Orlando Pride, competing in front of 16,225 fans at Snapdragon Stadium.

“I thought tonight was the night where we needed a little bit more quality on the ball, maybe a bit of creativity. And I felt she brought that,” San Diego head coach Casey Stoney said of her decision to sub Barcenas into the game in the 71st minute.

“She showed tonight what she’s about. I need to go over with her that once you beat the player, deliver the ball. I thought she did that in the box, and then tried to beat her again. So that’s a learning at this level… But it’s fantastic that she’s made her appearance tonight, and I’m really proud of her.”

The NWSL changed its age policy in 2022 and teams are now able to sign U18 players, with restrictions. Barcenas, who signed a three-year contract with San Diego last month, cannot be traded or waived before her 18th birthday without her and her parents’ consent.

Youngest NWSL players — Age in debut NWSL game

  1. Melanie Barcenas (15 years, 181 days when she played her first NWSL game in April 2023)
  2. Olivia Moultrie (15 years, 289 days when she played her first NWSL game in 2021)
  3. Chloe Ricketts (15 years, 327 days when she played her first NWSL game in April 2023)

The San Diego Wave have added another name to the NWSL’s youth movement, as the club has signed the youngest player in league history.

At 15 years and 138 days, Melanie Barcenas inked a three-year contract with the Wave. She takes the title of youngest-ever NWSL player from Chloe Ricketts, who earlier this month signed her own three-year-deal the Washington Spirit at 15 years and 283 days old.

Barcenas’ deal runs through the 2025 season. The Claremont, Calif., native becomes the first youth homegrown player to be signed in NWSL history, and she has played for the elite San Diego Surf youth club as well as the U.S. youth women’s national team.

“We are very happy that Melanie and her family have decided to entrust her hometown club as the place for her to begin her professional career,” Wave coach Casey Stoney said in a news release. “The coaches at San Diego Surf have been instrumental in helping her develop as a person and as a player for her entire youth career. We’re excited to maximize her potential through the coming years.”

Barcenas joins the league through the NWSL’s new under-18 entry mechanism. Under the mechanism, the 5-foot-3 forward has a full roster spot, cannot be traded or waived before her 18th birthday without her and her parents’ consent and is ineligible for selection in expansion drafts.

“I’m very excited to sign my first professional contract with my hometown team, San Diego Wave,” Barcenas said in a news release. “It’s been a dream of mine to not just play in the NWSL but to have the opportunity to represent this city since the announcement of the Wave last year.

“I know I am young, but the team and coaching staff have been amazing, and I look forward to learning from them every day as I continue to develop.”

In signing with the Wave, Barcenas becomes just the latest teenager to join the NWSL ranks.

Jaedyn Shaw signed with San Diego last July at age 17, and Olivia Moultrie signed with the Portland Thorns in 2021 at age 15. While those players required exemptions to enter the league, the NWSL has added the new entry mechanism for youth players, through which Ricketts and Barcenas have joined the league.