Wonderkid XI: Yohannes, Kafaji, Ortega among top young women's players to watch

Published on: 19 April 2024

Open Extended Reactions

From youngsters making their Champions League debuts, to 16-year-olds dazzling at the World Cup, 2023 was the year of the wonderkids in women's football.

In recent times we've seen the likes of Lauren James, Sophia Smith and Mary Fowler graduate from youth teamers to fully fledged professionals, but now the next generation are chomping at the bit to prove themselves.

While there is still a large disparity in access and development in women's football across the globe, which means equal recognition of their talents is hard to come by, as the game grows so will their names.

Here is an XI (in a 3-5-2 formation) of players under the age of 20, from 14 different countries and 10 leagues across four continents, who have shone this season. Some have already broken into their respective national teams or are regulars for the top clubs in Europe and the NWSL. All will be ones to watch in 2024 and beyond.

- Stream on ESPN+: NWSL, LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

GK: Khiara Keating, 19, Manchester City / England

At 19, Keating has dethroned two of the most competent goalkeepers in the Women's Super League (Sandy MacIver and Ellie Roebuck) to become Manchester City's first-choice. So far this season, the teenager has registered a 78.9% save rate and only conceded 12 goals, which has helped keep City within touching distance of their first WSL title since 2016.

Keating went from playing only 227 WSL minutes (three games, two starts) last season, to playing every minute (1,620) of every league game this campaign. She was called up to England's senior camp in October and has featured in every squad since, but is yet to make her debut. However, having made such a sizeable impression and penning a new contract until 2027, the sky is the limit for England's future No. 1.

DEF: Ana Maria Guzmán, 18, Bayern Munich / Colombia

One of the revelations of the 2023 World Cup, Guzmán was sensational against England's world-class forward line in the quarterfinal -- albeit in a 2-1 defeat. Her performances at the tournament, including a glorious assist in the round of 16 to knock Jamaica out, caught the eye of Bayern Munich, who signed her to a four-year deal last summer.

Guzmán's career has skyrocketed in recent years. She left her hometown of Mistrató at age 11 to join Club Atlético Dosquebradas in Pereira and earned her first callup to the Colombia national team in 2021. While surgery on a knee injury in October marred the start of her career in the Frauen Bundesliga, she certainly has the mentality and talent to succeed.

DEF: Sara Ortega, 19, Athletic Club / SpainEditor's Picks

    7 things from women's soccer: Man United add to Chelsea cup woes; Russo key for Arsenal4dSophie Lawson and Emily KeoghAwaiting Emma Hayes: how the USWNT deal with playing with no coach3dJeff KassoufNWSL Power Rankings: KC stays unbeaten as Marta helps Pride soar4dJoseph Lowery

2 Related

Having won the 2022 U-17 World Cup with Spain, followed by the European Under-19 Championship a year later, the accolades are already flowing for the 19-year-old.

Ortega made her debut for Athletic Club at the age of 16 in the Copa de la Reina, netting a superb finish against Racing in 2022 after coming on as a substitute, and now is a regular for the Liga F team. Technically gifted, with a versatile style that has seen her play in defence, midfield and even further forward, Ortega is an all-round star who can help take down the toughest of opponents.

DEF: Toko Koga, 18, Feyenoord / Japan

With an influx of Asian talent relocating to leagues across Europe, Koga made the brave decision to leave her home in Osaka for Dutch side Feyenoord in January. And the defender has already made eight appearances for the Eredivisie team to earn her place in the first XI.

Another technically skilled defender, with a keen eye and ability to anticipate an opponent's movement, Koga made her senior debut for Japan in 2023 and, given the tough competition within that squad, her quick integration speaks volumes about her capability and talent.

MID: Sheika Scott, 17, Alajuelense / Costa Rica

Given her nicknames of "The Pride of Talamanca" and "Costa Rica's Golden Girl," Scott has already proven that she can compete on the world stage after she was one of three 16-year-olds to impress for her country at the 2023 World Cup. But the lack of footballing exposure she had beforehand is striking.

The Alajuenese attacking midfielder made two appearances off the bench and one full start and flew under the radar somewhat compared to the stardom that some youngsters found at the tournament. Yet, with her game-changing ability and technical skill, Scott could become the successor to Costa Rica's most famous female footballing icon (and her idol): two-time Champions League winner Shirley Cruz.

Lily Yohannes has had a wonderful year and continues to impress. Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty ImagesMID: Lily Yohannes, 16, Ajax Amsterdam / United States

No one caused as much discourse last month as Ajax's 16-year-old sensation Yohannes, who became the youngest player to be called into a USWNT camp since Portland Thorns' Sophia Smith in April 2017 when she earned her place in the three-time world champions' squad for the SheBelieves Cup.

Yohannes has yet to make her USWNT debut but signed her first professional contract with Ajax at age 15, became the youngest player to ever start a Champions League group stage match this season and is also the youngest American to feature in the competition.

Impressing as she went toe-to-toe with new USWNT head coach Emma Hayes' current side Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals, if Yohannes is already making so many headlines so early in her career, it is hard to imagine the heights she could reach in the future.

MID: Giulia Dragoni, 17, Barcelona / Italy

Dragoni was only 16 when she represented Italy at the 2023 World Cup, but had already made headlines when signing for Barcelona, arguably the best women's team in the world right now, a few months earlier.

Before making the switch to Spain, Dragoni became the youngest player to feature in a Serie A match since the league turned professional when she made her debut for Inter Milan in November 2022.

Her integration into Italy's first-team setup has developed her skills monumentally, carrying wisdom and experience far beyond her years, and while she has featured heavily for Barcelona B, she has also been handed four appearances for the first team and will have learned a lot from the likes of Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas.

MID: Olivia Moultrie, 18, Portland Thorns / United States

Moultrie hit her own headlines much earlier in her career as she became the youngest player to commit to a college team and accept a scholarship offer -- which she ultimately gave up -- at age 11.

In 2019, she became the youngest American women's player to turn professional at age 13. And, aged 15, she filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NWSL in 2021 to ensure players under 18 could play regular season games in the top flight. Having been catapulted into the Portland Thorns' starting XI, she became the youngest player to make her debut.

Now 18, she has made over 50 senior appearances for the Thorns, starting more than half of them, and helped her team to win the 2022 NWSL Championship. She also became the youngest regular-season player in history to score a goal (aged 18) in June 2022.

Moultrie scored twice on her debut for the USWNT during the 2024 Concacaf Gold Cup against the Dominican Republic, becoming the third U.S. women's player to score two or more goals in a game aged 18 or younger.

The sky really is the limit for such an impressive young talent who has had fans rapt for seven years already.

MID: Wieke Kaptein, 18, Chelsea / Netherlands

Netherlands have produced some of the game's most talented midfielders over the years. And, idolising and playing alongside the likes of Vivianne Miedema, Jill Roord and Daniëlle van de Donk, Kaptein is a gem amongst the crown jewels in her country's midfield.

Kaptein broke into the Twente first team aged 16 and helped the side win a number of trophies -- namely the Eredivisie and three domestic cups -- which earned her a move to Chelsea last summer, though she returned on loan at the Dutch club for the 2023-24 season.

Making the step up to challenge for a starting spot at Chelsea next season will not be easy, but Kaptein is not an unrefined or inexperienced youngster. She has played plenty of games and won trophies despite her tender age. And, with Hayes' impending exit and Lyon's Sonia Bompastor set to take over at the six-time WSL winners, Kaptein could have a perfect opportunity to make her name.

Rosa Kafaji was a star of the Champions League this season. Linnea Rheborg - UEFA/UEFA via Getty ImagesFW: Rosa Kafaji, 20, BK Häcken / Sweden

If there is one player to keep an eye on this year it is BK Häcken's dazzling youngster. When the Swedish side were drawn into Chelsea's group in the Champions League, no one would have predicted that Kafaji would be the one attracting all the attention. But she scored three goals in six games to help Häcken progress to the knockout stage and bagged another in a 5-1 aggregate defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals.

Kafaji has been on Sweden's radar for some time and, a few months before she turned 18, she was called up to the senior squad in February 2021, but fell out of contention until recently and only made her full debut last year. A powerhouse forward with pinpoint accuracy, Kafaji showcased her skills as she created a stunning assist from off the bench in the Euro 2025 qualifying game against England earlier this month. There will surely be some serious transfer interest in her this summer as top clubs in Spain, England and the U.S. are circling.

FW: Vicky López, 17, Barcelona / Spain

López is a potential world-class talent. Even at 17, her footballing intelligence is high and players twice her age can only aspire to her decision-making ability. Indeed, sometimes it is easy to forget just how young Lopez still is given her exceptional passing and footwork.

Dominant at youth level, López won the Golden Ball award for best player at the 2022 U-17 World Cup and then the Player of the Tournament at the European Under-17 Championship a year later. She has slotted seamlessly among the dazzling stars of Barcelona's first team, proving just how talented she really is to earn a regular spot in the side. And, having already won the Champions League last season, she is on track to land a second title before she has even had her 18th birthday.

Just missed out

FW: Casey Phair, 16, Angel City / South Korea
Last year, South Korea starlet Phair became the youngest player to feature in a Women's World Cup -- at 16 years and 26 days -- since the tournament's inception in 1991. She then signed for NWSL side Angel City in January 2024, becoming the third teenage sensation to join the roster.

FW: Liana Joseph, 17, Lyon / France
It is not easy to earn a spot in the squad of eight-time Champions League winners Lyon. But Joseph's contributions for France at the European Under-17 Championship, where she scored a brace in the final to help her side win the title, have put her on the map. And she is now slowly breaking her way into Bompastor's team.

MID: Daniela Galic, 17, Melbourne City / Australia
Dubbed "the future of Australian football" when she was just 16, Galic's maturity and confidence have allowed her to excel for Melbourne City. A gifted midfielder who can play in any position across the middle, it won't be long before she is given a chance to shine in the senior Matildas squad.

FW: Amanda Allen, 19, Orlando Pride / Canada
It is not easy to make your national team debut at 17, especially when it is for Olympic gold medallists Canada. Yet Allen has gone from sharing an international stage with all-time women's top scorer Christine Sinclair to sharing a club stage with Brazil icon Marta at Orlando Pride. The teenage forward is learning from the best in the business and will no doubt be a fearless and potent attacker for Bev Priestman's side in the future.

FW: Aline Gomes, 18, Ferroviária / Brazil
No young player has footballing intelligence quite like Gomes. While her pace and technical skills are phenomenal, it is her judgement and understanding of the game that make her such a sensational talent. Able to plan, predict and adapt her game, she was named in Brazil's Concacaf Gold Cup squad last month and will likely remain a key player for them moving forward. And it surely won't be long before she gets a transfer to a big club too.

Source: espn.co.uk

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.
Learn more