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News / Sports / National Sports

National Women’s Soccer League experiencing youth movement as teenagers take the field

Thorns' Moultrie was trailblazer when she successfully sued NWSL in 2021 to play before she was 18

By ANNE M. PETERSON, AP Sports Writer
Published: June 28, 2023, 12:01pm
2 Photos
OL Reign defender Sofia Huerta, left, fouls Portland Thorns midfielder Olivia Moultrie, center, during the first half of an NWSL soccer match, Saturday, June 3, 2023, in Seattle.
OL Reign defender Sofia Huerta, left, fouls Portland Thorns midfielder Olivia Moultrie, center, during the first half of an NWSL soccer match, Saturday, June 3, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) Photo Gallery

When Olivia Moultrie was just 13, her family moved from California to Oregon so she could train with the Portland Thorns.

The National Women’s Soccer League had a rule at the time that all players had to be at least 18, so Moultrie could only practice with the team. On game days, she watched the Thorns from afar.

She wasn’t happy with the situation and did something about it, successfully suing two years ago for the right to play and paving the way for a youth movement in the NWSL that will likely grow as talented players see a path toward a professional career that doesn’t include playing in college.

“When I was fighting for the ability to play, I was just thinking, ‘This isn’t right. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Women should have the exact same opportunities as men should have,’” Moultrie said.

The league is now welcoming others who followed the 17-year-old’s lead after adopting new rules for players under 18 to join the league last year.

Alyssa Thompson became the first high schooler to be drafted in the league this year when she was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by Angel City. She also played her way onto the U.S. squad headed to the Women’s World Cup starting next month in Australia and New Zealand.

Thompson and Moultrie are among six teenagers in the league this season, and they’re not the youngest. In March, the San Diego Wave signed 15-year-old Melanie Barcenas, the youngest player ever to reach a deal in the NWSL. That followed the Washington Spirit’s signing of 15-year-old Chloe Ricketts.

The influx started in 2021 when a then-15-year-old Moultrie signed with the Thorns after winning her legal challenge. Her lawsuit alleged the rule requiring players to be 18 or older violated antitrust law and hindered Moultrie’s career development and chances of joining the U.S. team. There was no such age rule in the top U.S. men’s league, Major League Soccer.

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“Obviously, I’m super excited that we now have that equal opportunity, the same as they have in Europe, the same as they have in MLS,” Moultrie said. “I just think that will continue to evolve the women’s game, and at the end of the day that’s what we all want.”

It wasn’t just the lawsuit that spurred action. Younger players, like Trinity Rodman and Mallory Swanson, came into the league before playing meaningful games at the college level and it was clear the future was getting younger.

“I think the future of American soccer is very, very bright because there’s so many really, really bright, intelligent soccer players coming through the youth ranks,” San Diego Wave coach Casey Stoney said.

Under the NWSL rules adopted last year, players under 18 must live with a parent or guardian, must by U.S. citizens, and cannot be traded without the consent of the player and her parent or guardian. Young players cannot be selected in expansion drafts.

Thompson developed her skills playing for the under-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team in MLS Next and scored in her Angel City debut.

“I think she has lived up to all the hype.” teammate Ali Riley said.

Thompson also caught the eye of U.S. senior team coach Vlatko Andonovski, who included the high schooler on his roster for a pair of European matches last year — including a match against England at Wembley Stadium. Thompson, then 17, played as a substitute in the waning minutes of the game in front of a sellout crowd of 76,000.

Thompson was called into the second game of the national team’s recent two-game series against Ireland after forward Swanson was injured. Swanson tore her patellar tendon, and won’t be ready in time for the World Cup — providing the opening for Thompson to become the youngest player among the 23 on the roster for soccer’s biggest tournament.

“The environment of a pro is very similar to (the national team). There’s a little bit more pressure here,” Thompson said during her latest U.S. call up. “But Angel City has prepped me really well for this. I’m just continuing to grow my skills and continuing to grow as a player.”

Barcenas, who played for the San Diego Surf youth club and the U.S. under-17 team, made her professional debut in a recent match this season between the Wave and the Orlando Pride.

“She’s an exceptional talent, but she’s obviously still only 15, so we need to look after her,” Stoney said. “She’s still got lots of lessons to learn.”

Ricketts, now 16, played for a boy’s team, the Michigan Tigers 2007 Boys Gold, that won the under-15 national championship last year. She already has a sponsorship deal with adidas.

“I think people jumped to a conclusion, like I don’t have a life outside of soccer. But my life is soccer, that’s what I do to feel happy. My friends support me and so does my family, and they’ve supported me so I could get here. This is my journey,” Ricketts said. “Managing it is actually pretty easy because I have practice in the morning so then I have the rest of the day to do school and hang out with friends and just have time to be a kid.”

Spirit coach Mark Parsons cautioned that as players get younger, greater care must be taken to ensure they are ready to become pros — and that they aren’t pushed too hard once they get there.

“You’ve seen just as much as I have, Chloe deserves to be on the pitch, she makes it better when she comes on and it’s the start of a fun journey for her,” Parsons said. “The biggest role I’ve played with her is try and make sure this goes slow, probably slower than it needs to, but we all need to take this one step at a time.”

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