15-year-old Olivia Moultrie could change how soccer works here

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You probably haven’t heard of Olivia Moultrie. You’re going to, either on the field, or off, or both. And her name has a chance of being associated with massive change of the structure of soccer in the U.S.

Let’s get to the basics. Moultrie is a 15-year-old prodigy. She’s in the Portland Thorns academy, and has suited up for the first team in preseason games, and has played for their U-19 team. She accepted a scholarship offer from college powerhouse North Carolina when she was 11, but put that aside to turn pro and sign deals with the Wasserman Media Group and Nike. She has already played for the U-17 national team at 15. While there are many miles to travel, she could very well be the face of the national team some day.

She would like to play for the Thorns in the NWSL. The Thorns would like that to happen as well. But she can’t. There is an age minimum in the NWSL, much like the one Paige Bueckers is facing with the WNBA. But unlike Bueckers, Moultrie might have a legal avenue to change that. What it could mean for the NWSL, and MLS, is harder to gauge.

Paul Tenorio of The Athletic details the outlook and arguments. Whereas Bueckers would have to work around the CBA in a traditional league, NWSL’s single-entity status makes for murkier waters. As Tenorio details here, the single-entity status has only been taken on once before in court, Fraser vs. MLS, and even then its status as single-entity wasn’t really confirmed. There could be wiggle room.

If Moultrie and her team were to challenge the NWSL’s rule and win, what that could mean for both the NWSL and MLS is, well, “intriguing” would be the most staid word. “Open-season” might be another.

What’s hard to know is why the rule is in place. It could be to protect college soccer, though that’s hardly the business that college basketball is. It could be to protect older players, as any teenager working their way into the team is probably working an adult out of it, and that adult has real bills to pay (still a concern for a lot of NWSL players). While there are always concerns about fitting children into a grown-up workspace, teams have been bridging that gap around the world for years when a player’s talents necessitated it.

Moultrie’s case is also, outside of the legal arguments, a perfect illustration of what’s been wrong with the development of young players in the U.S for a long while, and still is. One reason the men’s game has lagged so far behind the rest of the world in the past is the travel team/scholarship/college cycle for players. It left out a host of players who couldn’t afford travel teams, had no access to them, and were never seen by those scouts or coaches to be developed into better players.

Secondly, that system simply didn’t have the coaching or resources that Europe’s academy club system did, though both NWSL and MLS are trying to change that now. But European and South American kids had professional coaches and systems to come up through at eight or nine years old in some cases, whereas kids on these shores were still being coached by people with all sorts of training or motives.

That wasn’t nearly the problem for the U.S. women as it was for the men, because the former had such a larger player pool than anyone else before other countries really started caring about women’s soccer. College soccer was the best feeder system to the top level, and it was just about the only one for a while.

That’s changed. The European game has grown exponentially, and more and more of the top clubs have women’s teams to go along with their men’s (Real Madrid and Manchester United came into the ranks in the past two years, for instance), along with their development structures.

Which means European players are joining professional teams at younger ages, and are getting to play professional games. It’s hardly a crisis for the USWNT yet, and may well never be given that player pool. But even in the last World Cup, it was relatively easy to see the U.S winning due to its athleticism more than its technical ability. Their goals were scored on set pieces or on the counter, which are more about how fast they run, how high they jump, how fit they are, how strong they are on the ball. And that chasm between the U.S. and the competition is still pretty huge. But when it came to actually knocking the ball around, first touch, weaving through traffic, France, Holland, England could claim to be on the same plane as the U.S.

And that’s where both the men and the women lose out with players not being developed in the same way. You learn that stuff at a young age. As any USMNT fan will tell you, you can’t simply attach a great first touch to a 24-year-old, otherwise we would have done it already and saved ourselves years of heartache.

Essentially, the tag “if he/she/they are good enough, he/she/they are old enough” should be applied to Moultrie and anyone like her. The NWSL would benefit from having the best players in the league, and the U.S. would benefit from them playing the best possible competition instead of worrying about a road game at Clemson or the like. And it would help the USWNT stay ahead of the chasing pack.

FIFA rules state that international transfers are not allowed for players under 18, but there are workarounds. One is the player’s parents move to the new country for ostensibly non-soccer-related reasons, which feels like it could be bent in all sorts of ways for families like Moultrie’s that were so inclined. As the game in Europe becomes more and more lucrative, would parents of a 16- or 17-year-old see the money their child could make as that attractive? Who knows how many Moultries there are, or will be, but why should NWSL risk losing any of them?

MLS must be watching intently as well. Should Moultrie take on NWSL, a “single-entity” entity, it would have consequences for the men’s league as well. MLS doesn’t have the age-limit rules NWSL does, but there are tons of financial implications for them, as well, if the laws governing single-entity league structure were challenged.

Like I said, you’ll know Olivia Moultrie soon, for a host of reasons.

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