PORTLAND, Ore. — It was a splashy announcement that was impossible to ignore: Olivia Moultrie, a 13-year-old soccer player, had gone pro.
She doesn’t have a team to play for at the moment but, with the help of her new sports agent, she turned down a scholarship at UNC and signed a multi-year contract with Nike worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It was an unprecedented move. Not since Lindsey Horan skipped college to play for Paris Saint-Germain had an American female taken a similar path, but Moultrie made her decision far younger and in much more unusual circumstances. Because of her minor status, she's not allowed to play overseas. Whether she might soon be playing in the National Women's Soccer League is just as uncertain. It could be years before she has a professional club team.
But the big announcement of Moultrie as the youngest American girl to become a pro soccer player happened in February. Now it's late April and the question becomes: So, what comes next?
Moultrie has been training with the Portland Thorns senior team alongside the likes of Horan and Tobin Heath, despite being part of the club's youth academy. An eventual debut in the NWSL seems like the next logical step – but it won't be happening anytime soon.
The NWSL doesn't actually have any specific rules against an American minor playing in the league. As written, the NWSL's competition rules only cite age as a factor for non-contract replacement players and foreign players – neither can be minors.
But there is a reluctance from the NWSL front office, which for now consists mainly of president Amanda Duffy acting as de facto commissioner, in allowing a minor to compete in the league. It’s sort of an unwritten rule: Players are expected to play in college before they arrive in the NWSL. Even Mallory Pugh and Tierna Davidson, who departed from the usual mold, had been in college for some period of time before leaving to play in the NWSL.
It may seem like a double standard. In MLS, teenage boys have the same opportunities as anyone else, and the “play your kids” movement has made the league better and more valuable in the global market. Alphonso Davies was 15 years old when he made his debut for the Vancouver Whitecaps and, by the time he was 17, Bayern Munich paid a $22 million fee to sign him. Players like him are cropping up constantly – this year, 16-year-old Gianluca Busio has scored three goals in seven games for Sporting Kansas City.
But the NWSL may not be the right environment for teenagers – at least not yet. The compensation in the NWSL – a minimum of $16,538 and a max of $46,200 – is still paltry compared to MLS. The training environments and housing situations are inconsistent across the league too, as the recent controversy around Sky Blue FC's poor conditions show.
Besides, it may be too soon to worry about whether Moultrie will be allowed to play in the NWSL. No one knows if she’s even good enough for the league yet and player development isn't always a straight line – being a great 13-year-old isn't always predictive of future success. The clichéd warnings of what happened to Freddy Adu serve as the warning that patience is needed with teenagers.
The Moultrie hype train may have left the station with the Nike announcement, but it probably ought to slow down. She has a lot of growing to do before she can resemble what fans of American soccer hope for, and Moultrie's family and her representation have determined that Portland is the right place for that growth to happen.
When asked about Moultrie, Thorns coach Mark Parsons uses a fitting analogy for a 13-year-old player: At her age, he says, training is a bit like a game of Mario Bros. If it's too easy, it won’t inspire anything other than boredom and complacency, but if it’s difficult, it’ll lead to frustration and quitting.
In Portland, Parsons wants Moultrie to face different challenges — ones she can succeed in and others where she will fail.
“The key for a player is to experience being at the bottom of the pack, in the middle and at the top of the pack,” he says. “If you’re stuck at the bottom, your interest and passion for it drops because you never get a taste of success. You have to taste a bit of it all and, for any player in our environment at any age, we try to create that.”
“If you think of our top players, if they are at No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 every single day, they are going to get complacent. We have to create training where the top three players drop to the middle of the pack, and I've got sessions to do that. For them to feel that psychologically is important.”
In that sense, Parsons' approach in developing a player who is still a child isn't all that different than how he trains the likes of established stars like Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan. But it's still too soon to tell what sort of player Moultrie will become.
For those curious about the 13-year-old professional, there have been limited data points. In training sessions where the team runs drills mimicking counterattacks, she seems to fit right in — she can fire a difficult shot or lay a deft pass off to a teammate. But it’s still only training and not a game environment.
"With Olivia, I've seen sessions where she's middle of the pack," Parsons says. "I've seen her where she's near the bottom, but there are a couple sessions where she's in the top five with decision-making, solving pressure, movement and creating space. But training is one thing. She’s got to face that in games as well."
During the Thorns’ preseason, when Moultrie was eligible to play, she didn’t look out of place. She ran into space, dribbled up the flanks and passed to the likes of Christine Sinclair, who is more than double Moultrie’s age. But preseason is a notoriously bad gauge of anything as players look rusty and out of sorts.
Yet, there is enough there that the Thorns have been working behind the scenes to ensure they can maintain Moultrie's rights as a homegrown player, sources say. Right now, the NWSL doesn't have a homegrown rule the way MLS does, which gives teams first dibs on players who develop through their academy systems. The NWSL doesn't require NWSL teams to maintain academy teams, which is a requirement in MLS, so implementing a homegrown-player rule is not exactly urgent.
Moultrie's situation, however, has forced the league to look more closely at adding a homegrown rule than it ever has before. The Thorns have never had an academy player train with the senior team full time, so Moultrie is already breaking new ground. The league has much more pressing issues with precious little staff to do it, but at some point a situation like Moultrie's will need to be addressed.
Until Moultrie can get on the field and show she is worthy of the attention she has garnered, there is a delicate balance for her parents and her agents. The age gap between her and the players she's competing with at the Portland Thorns is already large, and Moultrie's camp wants to avoid sewing resentment over her big Nike deal or the media hype surrounding her unusual circumstances. Moultrie and the people around her aren't granting interviews to the media – they declined to speak with Yahoo Sports for this story – and it's easy to understand why.
Olivia Moultrie might be the next big thing but it'll be a while before anyone knows for sure. Until then, she will be in Portland, training with one of the best clubs in the world and waiting for her chance to prove it.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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