Who is the best young player in the NWSL? Ranking every player 19 and younger

Published on: 23 May 2024

Open Extended ReactionsFrom left to right Alyssa Thompson, Jaedyn Shaw and Olivia Moultrie are three of the best young players in the NWSL. Where did they fall on our ranking of every NWSL player aged 19 and younger? Illustration by ESPN

Three years ago, the NWSL was taken to court over its refusal to let players under 18 sign a contract. Today, the NWSL is home to several teenage superstars as young as 16 who are playing or challenging for important starting roles on their teams.

Most of these young players are Americans, and several should be part of the future plans for the U.S. women's national team. These players' abilities to compete at a professional level this early in their careers is important for the NWSL and the USWNT as each tries to keep up with a rapidly evolving global game.

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Top teens turning pro is commonplace in Europe, and the domestic leagues and national teams benefit from the players' development in the long run. Spain won its first Women's World Cup triumph last year after years of dominance at the youth level, where players were training in professional academies and with senior teams.

There are 17 teens total in the NWSL, two of whom have already played in a senior World Cup and another, Milly Clegg who made New Zealand's World Cup roster but didn't play there. She's also yet to debut in the NWSL, so out of fairness, we've held off on a full assessment until we see her in those settings. We've ranked every other player aged 19 or younger based on a combination of advanced stats, interviews with coaches, and weekly analysis. In most (but not all) cases, earning playing time in the NWSL goes a long way in determining the current readiness of a player for the pro game.

Who are the future stars of the NWSL? A few of them are already becoming household names. Let's get to the rankings.

16. Amanda Allen

Age: 19
Position: Forward/winger
Club: Orlando Pride
Country: Canada

Strengths: Allen is a versatile player who can slot in as a forward, midfielder or any position on the wing. That is to her benefit as she finds her place on a Pride team that is lighting up the league right now, and it will benefit her internationally as she looks to become part of Canada's future.

Areas to improve: Cracking into the Pride's squad as a forward is going to be tough with the recent addition of Barbra Banda and the strong form of Ally Watt. The summer should bring more opportunities as Banda heads to the Olympics and NWSL teams play in friendlies. Like several others on this list, Allen needs more opportunities to experience the speed of play at the pro level.

What they said: "She's a dynamic, attack-minded player who is going to bring even more competition to our roster. Amanda is one of the most promising and exciting players in our game, and she is going to flourish in her development as both a player and person here with the Pride." -- Pride general manager Haley Carter

15. Chloe Ricketts

Age: 16
Position: Forward/attacking midfielder
Club: Washington Spirit
Country: USA

Strengths: Ricketts briefly held the NWSL record as the youngest signing in league history, only to be eclipsed by Melanie Barcenas two weeks later. Ricketts is an attack-minded player who loves to keep the ball at her feet and can execute individual technical moves at speed.

Areas to improve: Ricketts has played only sparingly this season on a Spirit team with a lot of talent -- including two sensational first-round picks who are now clear, long-term starters in midfield. Ricketts will need to consistently connect passes and keep possession when she gets the opportunity.

What they said: "Chloe has always been driven like no other. Even in her younger years here at Michigan Tigers, coaches always saw the energy and love for the game she had." -- Michigan Tigers club director Andy Pritchard

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14. Melanie Barcenas

Age: 16
Position: Forward
Club: San Diego Wave FC
Country: USA

Strengths: Like Ricketts, Barcenas is a player who glides through the pitch with the ball at her feet. She loves to take on players one-on-one, and she harnessed those skills as a youth player on some of the same fields the Wave now use as the team's practice facility. She signed with San Diego a few weeks after Ricketts signed with Washington, and Barcenas became the youngest player in league history.

Areas to improve: Incisiveness. Barcenas is exceptional on the ball, but early in her career, there have been moments where she tries to do too much, like trying to beat a player on the dribble for a second time when she had already done so to free herself up for a cross. There's a balance to allowing for creativity, but reminiscent of a young Tobin Heath who took some time to evolve from ball mastery to technical movements with a purpose, Barcenas will need to figure out when playing simple is effective.

What they said: "She's creative and she's an exceptional talent. She's still obviously only 15, so we need to look after her. 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." -- Wave head coach Casey Stoney, when Barcenas debuted last year

13. Casey Phair

Age: 16
Position: Forward
Club: Angel City FC
Country: South Korea

Strengths: Casey Phair is one of only two players -- and the youngest -- on this list with senior World Cup experience. Phair played in all three of South Korea's group-stage matches at the 2023 World Cup and started in a 1-1 draw with Germany. Her entire youth career took place in the U.S., where her family moved shortly after she was born in South Korea, and Phair's performances at the World Cup put her on Angel City's radar. Phair watches videos of Erling Haaland and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to learn more about how to play the No. 9 position, which is a window into the combination of physical and technical skills she aims to bring to the position.

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Areas to improve: Phair's raw talent is clear. At 16, the next step concerns her decision-making and pace of play. The biggest adjustment from the youth level to the professional game (and then again to the international level) is how quickly the game moves. Plenty of players know what they need to do -- and those who have seen Phair train and play agree she possesses those skills -- but processing those thoughts and executing in a timely manner is the big difference. That will come with time and reps in training, and at the international level, where Phair is clearly a focal point of South Korea's rebuild.

What they said: "She's physically very strong, great in one-on-ones, and I think she has a really bright future in this league. For Casey, it's a case of keep training and keep challenging yourself every day and learn to be that pro ... We have a plan for Casey. I think she has so much to give. I think we just have to manage her in the correct way to give her the best opportunity as a young player to come through, and I think you're going to see the best out of her when the time is right." -- Angel City FC coach Becki Tweed

12. Kimmi Ascanio

Age: 16
Position: Midfielder
Club: San Diego Wave FC
Country: USA

Strengths: The youngest active player in the league shoulders the burden of playing in central midfield for a team that wants to create a more possession-oriented identity despite ongoing injuries. Ascanio tallied an assist in her first pro start, a 2-1 win over Bay FC on April 27, and Wave coach Casey Stoney has called upon Ascanio to help the team get control of games from a losing position. Ascanio is sharp at connecting lines through midfield and shows early promise as a potential box-to-box midfielder.

Areas to improve: Ascanio ranks poorly among her peers in tackle percentage and duel percentage, per TruMedia. Playing central midfield in the NWSL is a major demand for any player, let alone a 16-year-old. She'll need to continue to refine her defensive play and get used to quick transitions in the middle of the park.

What they said: "She's composed. She's very good on the ball. I think she gives us good control in midfield. I think the speed of the game caught her up at times [in her first start recently] but that's important. She needs to know that, and she needs to learn it and feel it. She's an exceptional talent. I'm a big believer if you're good enough, you're old enough. It's my job to put you in at the right time, to take you out at the right time, give you exposure, look after you when it's right, expose you when it's right, and I thought it was the right time and I thought she did really well in her debut." -- Stoney

11. Alex Pfeiffer

Age: 16
Position: Forward
Club: Kansas City Current
Country: USA

Strengths: Pfeiffer made a dream debut as a professional. Her 68th-minute goal on March 16 was Kansas City's fifth of the day against Portland and ultimately turned out to be the game-winner in the grand opening of CPKC Stadium. It was a calm, precise finish from 18 yards out that showed great instincts.

Areas to improve: Pfeiffer is fighting for playing time on the NWSL's best attacking team, one that boasts multiple MVP candidates at forward. That she is getting on the field at all as a reserve, even with limited minutes, speaks to her quality. Coach Vlatko Andonovski is known for developing strong NWSL players, and he'll certainly help Pfeiffer become a two-way forward. It helps to have Bia Zaneratto and Temwa Chawinga to learn from, too.

What they said: "Alex is a tremendous talent we are so excited to bring to the Current. We believe she has the ability to impact this team for many years to come and are thrilled she chose to take this next step in her career to continue her development with us in K.C." -- Current general manager Camille Ashton

10. Riley Jackson

Age: 18
Position: Midfielder
Club: North Carolina Courage
Country: USA

Strengths: Jackson is a composed midfielder who co-captained the USWNT U-17s in 2022. She has been a game-changer for the Courage in limited minutes thus far, including in an early-season loss to the Utah Royals. Jackson brings energy and a tempo to the midfield.

Areas to improve: An inherent part of any challenge for a player on this list is cracking a team with established players. Jackson calls Denise O'Sullivan one of her idols; O'Sullivan is also North Carolina's longtime engine in central midfield. The Irish international has most often been joined by Japan international Narumi Miura deeper in central midfield this season. Neither of those players is going to be quickly pushed out of the lineup, so Jackson's lack of play time is part of the long game.

What they said: "I've said she's the future of our club. She's a possession-oriented midfielder, which is great, but she has a calmness to her. We want to ease her into this and not throw her into the fire. We want to build her momentum, especially with such a good midfield group. But we also know what she's capable of. She's learning every single day." -- Courage coach Sean Nahas

9. Gisele Thompson

Age: 18
Position: Fullback
Club: Angel City FC
Country: USA

Strengths: The first Thompson sister on this list earned her inaugural look with the senior USWNT as a training player ahead of the Gold Cup in February. She's a fullback who, like her sister, Alyssa, has the pace to cover ground on the wing and contribute to the attack.

Areas to improve: Thompson's minutes have been limited since signing with Angel City ahead of the 2024 season. She dealt with some minor injuries and plays in a position where Angel City has some depth, including veterans Ali Riley and Merritt Mathias. Then, Madison Curry, a fourth-round draft pick this year, has emerged as a valued defensive option for Angel City. Thompson's first start came Saturday in a wild 4-2 loss to the Washington Spirit, and it was a little bit of everything. She was effective going forward alongside her sister, Alyssa, but she was also caught out on a few occasions as the Spirit countered. Marking Trinity Rodman, who scored twice, is no easy task.

What they said: "It's been about the same time as when we were trying to get Alyssa to be part of Angel City that we were looking at getting Gisele, too. That was really strategically part of our mindset and the ability to have both Alyssa and Gisele started when we were trying to get Alyssa and to secure that No. 1 draft spot. The strategy has been over a year in the making for Gisele because even at that time, even though she didn't know which direction she wanted to go, we were hoping that we would get to this point." -- Angel City general manager Angela Hucles Mangano to ESPN about pursuing both Thompson sisters

8. Emeri Adames

Age: 18
Position: Forward/winger
Club: Seattle Reign FC
Country: USA

Strengths: Adames has quickly built up her minutes with a Reign team trying to figure out its identity. Adames has done well in both a reserve role and as an occasional starter, including when she contributed to the Reign's late equalizer in a 3-2 loss to Bay FC last month. Adames can often be found flying up the left wing and stretching opponents' back lines. "She's a left-footed wide player -- say less," Seattle Reign FC coach Laura Harvey said after her debut.

Areas to improve: Adames joined the Reign at a time of flux in Seattle, meaning she is finding her way as a player as this longtime contender and 2023 finalist rediscovers its own identity after losing a trio of American stars in the offseason. That subtext adds an additional challenge for any young player trying to learn a new system. Her biggest challenge will be processing the role asked of her in any given game.

What they said: "You wait, this kid's unbelievable." -- Harvey

7. Savy King

Age: 19
Position: Fullback
Club: Bay FC
Country: USA

Strengths: Bay FC coach Albertin Montoya loves attack-minded outside backs, and he believes he's found that for the long term with King, who was one of the youngest draft picks in NWSL history at 18 years and 11 months old. She turned pro after starting all 23 games as a freshman for the University of North Carolina, where she primarily featured as a centerback. King mixes that defensive experience -- she ranks among the league leaders in tackles early this NWSL season -- with a green light to get forward down the left side.

Areas to improve: King had some tough assignments to start her pro career, including squaring off with Rodman in one-on-one isolations in Week 2. Rodman assisted on the Spirit's first goal and King got caught flat-footed on the late winner for Washington, but all these anecdotes are learning experiences for a young defender in a league filled with world-class forwards, especially as she adjusts to a different position.

What they said: "Savy for us is someone that we see as being the future of our organization and of this league. As a top young player, she has not only the physical qualities but also brings composure and sophistication to her game along with the technical components and tactical understanding to be one of the best players in this league. We are excited to have her on our team." -- Montoya

6. Kennedy Fuller

Age: 17
Position: Attacking midfielder
Club: Angel City FC
Country: USA

Strengths: Perhaps the greatest compliment to pay a young player is that they look like a veteran, and Kennedy Fuller fits the part. She moves around the field with pace -- not in some reckless pursuit, but in purposeful possession -- and she already appears to possess the veteran savvy of drawing contact to earn a foul in a dangerous area.

Areas to improve: Patience on and off the ball. Angel City wants to try to build out more of a possession-based game this season, and Tweed will need Fuller to set that tone from an attacking midfield position. Fuller has also played a hybrid wide role as Tweed tried different tactics, like in the team's April home match against Kansas City. In that 3-1 loss, Fuller played on the front line of a 3-4-3.

What they said: "She's such a young player with such a mature mind. When I look at her and I put her in the young player category, I think about where she is as a pro and the environments that she's been in to lead her to where she is right now, she knows how to look after her body, she knows how to recover. She's still learning, but she understands the game. I think if you were to [categorize] people into pro maturity, you wouldn't even put her in the young player category, because she just knows exactly what she needs to do and has that mature personality about her." -- Tweed

5. Manaka Matsukubo

Age: 19
Position: Forward/attacking midfielder
Club: North Carolina Courage
Country: Japan

Strengths: Manaka's technical ability is exceptional, as evidenced by her stunning volley to help the Courage win last year's NWSL Challenge Cup. Courage coach Sean Nahas complimented Manaka's cerebral ability to read the game after that MVP performance. Her possession-oriented style fits well both with Japan's system and with how the Courage want to play. North Carolina lacks a target forward this season, which means Manaka and Ashley Sanchez frequently interchange in that space.

Areas to improve: Manaka is yet to score this season and has only created 1.03 expected goals per TruMedia. Some of that is a product of North Carolina's style of play and the lack of an attacking focal point, but Manaka needs to be more clinical when she gets her chances. Manaka is the oldest teenager in the league, and she is on loan until June, when the Courage have the option to complete a permanent transfer.

What they said: "She's an energizer. She's 19 and we brought her here because [of] her ability to get into the pockets and turn and run at back lines." -- Nahas after last year's Challenge Cup final victory

4. Alyssa Thompson

Age: 19
Position: Forward/winger
Club: Angel City FC
Country: USA

Strengths: It's fitting that Thompson was effectively the USWNT's World Cup replacement for Mallory Swanson because there are similarities between their games. Thompson often appears faster with the ball at her feet, and she is exceptional at dribbling in tight spaces. She can drive at defenders to put them in compromised, backpedaling positions, and she can finish from tight angles. Thompson is a goal-scoring winger.

Areas to improve: Consistency is the primary area of focus, and that should come in time. Thompson jumped out to a sensational start in 2023 as the No. 1 pick in that year's draft, but she scored only once after May 7. Her time at the 2023 World Cup was limited but valuable for her and the USWNT in the long run. She has three assists this year as Angel City has refined its identity with Claire Emslie as a focal point on the opposite wing.

What they said: "She's a player who can impact the now, who can elevate our environment, bring us closer to those goals of winning a championship a lot sooner than a long term-strategy. And she has years ahead of her; she's a player that can continue to develop. She is our phenom, generational player that can come into Angel City." -- Angel City GM Angela Hucles Mangano to ESPN upon drafting and signing Thompson last year

play1:24Why Herculez Gomez is surprised at Alyssa Thompson's U-19 rating

Herculez Gomez expected to see Alyssa Thompson higher than No. 4 in ESPN FC's NWSL U-19 Hot List.

3. Claire Hutton

Age: 18
Position: Defensive midfielder
Club: Kansas City Current
Country: USA

Strengths: One team executive outside of Kansas City told ESPN this preseason that Hutton is "the real deal" already. That quickly became clear to the rest of the league. She has started every game and played almost every minute of the season as the Current's No. 6. Hutton ranks second in the NWSL in tackles won, per TruMedia, and while she hasn't tallied a goal or an assist, she supports Kansas City's incredible attack from deep-lying positions. Goalkeeping heroics from Jane Campbell among others have kept Hutton off the scoreboard. Usually, young stars break through as attacking players. Hutton is a defensive midfielder who could define the position in the decade ahead.

Areas to improve: Kansas City Current coach Vlatko Andonovski described Hutton's youthful naivete to ESPN this preseason as an area for her to develop. Hutton tries to be everywhere all the time. She's a defensive midfielder, but she wants to do join the attack and then sprint to make every tackle. Hutton and the Current staff will have to find that balance as she develops. To be fair, that is happening rapidly before our eyes.

What they said: "I think it's going to be too brave for me to say she's going to be in the next World Cup; she certainly has potential." -- Andonovski to ESPN this preseason

2. Olivia Moultrie

Age: 18
Position: Attacking midfielder
Club: Portland Thorns
Country: USA

Strengths: Moultrie took the NWSL to court for the right to play at age 15, pushing the league to expedite plans for allowing talented teenagers to sign with teams. Per TruMedia, Moultrie ranks among the top 13 players in the league in chances created. It helps to have forward Sophia Smith on the other end of through balls, but the stat also speaks to Moultrie's primary strength, which is delivering the final ball. Moultrie is a creative player who thrives on the freedom to be audacious and try things that others might not. Developing that balance between risk and reward is a delicate process, but if done right, it could be just what the USWNT needs going forward.

Areas to improve: Moultrie is mature and self-reflective, and she knows she needs to be "more efficient" as a central attacking midfielder, she told ESPN earlier this season. Ultimately, that means finishing plays by providing assists or scoring goals; she has scored three goals and has not yet tallied an assist for the Thorns this season.

What they said: "She's really starting to come into her own and kind of orchestrate [play]. If you watch her movement off the ball, it's exquisite. And when she's got the ball, she's dangerous. And again, this comes down to her taking control." -- David Copeland Smith, who trained Moultrie before she moved to Portland

1. Jaedyn Shaw

Age: 19
Position: Forward/attacking midfielder
Club: San Diego Wave FC
Country: USA

Strengths: The final ball. Shaw is best in a No. 10 role, where she can get on the ball, turn and find runners. She showed that again with a great assist in a win over the Utah Royals last week. Even at 19, few players in the NWSL play a better final pass than Shaw. She was tied for fifth in the NWSL last year with 38 key passes, which measure passes leading to a shot or a shot assist. Shaw is also a clinical finisher with great instincts in front of goal, evidenced by the variety of goals she scored recently for the USWNT that ranged from an unstoppable strike vs. Japan to a mature, opportunistic play on a waterlogged pitch against Canada. She can play wide or centrally, and every time she steps on the field she is a focal point for club and country.

play1:38Why Jaedyn Shaw is NWSL's top U-19 player

Herculez Gomez breaks down Jaedyn Shaw's presence at No. 1 on ESPN FC's NWSL U-19 Hot List.

Areas to improve: Defensive work has been a point of emphasis stressed by USWNT interim coach Twila Kilgore, and Shaw will need to refine that element of her game to play in a demanding three-player midfield if she is the USWNT's future No. 10. Shaw was slightly inconsistent last year for the Wave, but part of that had to do with reduced minutes due to load management. Shaw has not started every game for the Wave because of the increased international demand on her as a regular USWNT call-up. Those opportunities are only going to increase going forward.

What they said: "I would actually say even though she's here, she's doing a great job, we're seeing great things from her, and we're really pleased, I'd say she's still in the onboarding process. She's still working on all phases of her game -- excellent in a lot of them and being challenged in some others." -- Kilgore

Source: espn.co.uk

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