For a long time, the NWSL, the top-flight in the United States, has been one of the best leagues in the women’s game. That’s no surprise. After all, the U.S. women’s national team has long been one of the best in the world itself – winning the last two World Cups - and the majority of its roster has often called the NWSL home.
But now is it becoming a league that not only harbors some of the best players in the world, but some of the best wonderkids, too.
Indeed, three of the best teenagers coming through in the U.S. were NXGN 2023 finalists, and all of them play in the NWSL – Olivia Moultrie of the Portland Thorns, San Diego Wave forward Jaedyn Shaw and Alyssa Thompson, who was chosen as the No.1 overall pick by Angel City in the 2023 NWSL Draft.
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The trio are joined by another representative of the league, too, in Haley Bugeja, who signed for the Orlando Pride from Sassuolo last summer.
This is despite the NWSL only being represented on the list for the first time in 2022, when the Houston Dash’s Paulina Gramaglia featured.
So why has it taken so long for these wonderkids to come through in the league? Well, until two years ago, you had to be 18 years old to play in it.
It was back in 2021 that Moultrie, then just 15 years old, filed a federal anti-trust lawsuit against the NWSL and its minimum age requirement.
“The court finds that the 10 teams that make up the NWSL have agreed to impose the NWSL’s age restriction which excludes female competitors from the only available professional soccer opportunity in the United States because they are under 18, regardless of talent, maturity, strength, and ability,” federal judge Karin Immergut explained.
“If I were French or if I were Spanish or if I were German, I would be allowed to play right now,’’ Moultrie had told the judge. “The only thing I want is the same chance that males have everywhere in the world, including here, and the same chance that females have everywhere in the world except here.”
Three months later, she made her professional debut and became the NWSL’s youngest-ever player, something she followed up in 2022 by becoming its youngest-ever scorer.
But Moultrie is not the only teenage talent proving that they are worth their place in the league. Last summer, an electric 17-year-old by the name of Jaedyn Shaw signed for the San Diego Wave, permitted to enter the league after the changes to age restrictions.
Within 13 days of putting pen to paper on her first professional contract, she became the second-youngest player to feature in the NWSL, and the youngest to score on debut.
Within two months, with an Under-20 Women’s World Cup sandwiched in between, she had become just the second player in league history to score in their first three appearances. Two of those were match-winners, helping the Wave to beat both the Chicago Red Stars and Angel City by 1-0 scorelines.
“We're very lucky to have her on our roster,” Casey Stoney, the Wave’s head coach, told the media. “At 17 years old, she has extreme maturity and never gets fazed by anything. Super talent. What she can do with a ball is frightening.”
Now, Thompson, the youngest draft pick in NWSL history, is coming along to join the party after being selected by the Wave’s California rivals, Angel City.
Thompson was playing with the U19 men’s team at Total Futbol Academy in MLS Next and is already a full senior international, debuting at a sold-out Wembley Stadium when the U.S. faced England last November. She was 17 years old.
"I think she did great coming in,” USWNT icon Megan Rapinoe said after that game. “I mean, it's just a ridiculous experience. I ask her a couple of times a day, 'Are you just like, "What the f*ck is going on?" You're playing in this massive game at such a young age'.”
The glimpses fans have got of Thompson playing with the reigning world champions will have certainly whet the appetite ahead of her first season in the NWSL.
A look at the NXGN 2023 finalists who features alongside Moultrie, Shaw and Thompson reinforces the point Moultrie made when she filed the anti-trust lawsuit. Nine of the 25 players made their senior debuts at the age of 17. Eight were 16 years old when they made that landmark appearance. A further six were only 15, the age that Moultrie was back in 2021.
Linda Caicedo, who signed for Real Madrid in February and was named Player of the Tournament at last summer’s Copa America, was just 14 years of age when she first played for America de Cali.
Alice Soto, one of the most exciting young prospects in Mexican women’s soccer, made her Liga MX Femenil debut at 13. She’s now playing alongside a Champions League winner at Pachuca, in former Barcelona striker Jennifer Hermoso.
In Shaw and Moultrie, we’ve already seen two stars shine on the biggest stage since the NWSL removed its age restriction. Had that stayed in place, the league could’ve lost Shaw to a European side, for example, as plenty were interested.
Moultrie, meanwhile, could’ve spent three years just training with the Thorns and playing scrimmages. There’s no doubt that the environment has helped her develop, but nothing is better for a young player than minutes and big game experience.
Now they are coming through, how many more could follow? Given the talent the U.S. has produced over the years, it’s exciting to think that future generations can be exposed to the highest level in their home country even earlier now.