Unquestionably, the National Women’s Soccer League has been bringing in a lot of great young players lately. But, without Olivia Moultrie, these girls would not currently be in the league.

Despite just eighteen, Moultrie is participating in her fourth NWSL season with the Portland Thorns. The NWSL’s current youth movement began when she decided to sue the league in 2021 to assert her right to sign a contract at the age of 15. Today, the majority of clubs feature players under the age of 18, several of whom are already stars.

When Moultrie, then 13 years old, opted to forgo her college eligibility—she had committed to the University of North Carolina two years prior—and turn “professional” by signing a contract with Nike (prior to the NIL era), she garnered attention on a global scale in 2019. There was a hitch when Moultrie and her family moved from southern California to Portland: she didn’t yet have a professional playing gig.

While Moultrie was prohibited by FIFA regulations from playing overseas at her age, the NWSL’s murky regulations at the time purportedly mandated that all players be at least eighteen. After obtaining a preliminary injunction, Moultrie opposed the NWSL’s claim, alleging an antitrust violation. The parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 2021, with Moultrie winning the case in around two months. Since then, the NWSL has progressively changed its archaic regulations pertaining to players under the age of 18, first permitting just some exclusions and then, last year, establishing an entry process that formally permitted teams to recruit two players under the age of 18. In 2024, the maximum number of under-18 players allowed for each squad was doubled to four.

Bright young talent is becoming more and more prevalent in the NWSL these days, which is crucial for both the league and the US women’s national team as they both try to stay up with the rapidly changing international scene. For instance, Spain’s 2023 World Cup victory last year was evidently the result of exceptional adolescent players competing on senior teams for years throughout Europe.

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