Teenagers are suddenly some of the NWSL's top stars. How and why was the league forced to change?

Over the first eight years of the NWSL, only five teenagers received minutes in official games. In 2023 alone, we've already seen that number exceeded, with a total of seven players aged 15 to 19 featuring in the regular season or Challenge Cup. Among that group, three have already become major contributors for their teams.

The dramatic nature of this shift suggests evolving attitudes and strategies in NWSL front offices, where there is an increasing willingness to invest in long-term potential rather than prioritizing immediate returns. But why weren't teams doing this before? And what made them decide that now is the time?

Here's how we got here and what this means for the future of the league.

15-year-old Olivia Moultrie sues her way into the NWSL -- and proves she belongs

"If you're good enough, you're old enough" -- that became a rallying cry in summer 2021 as 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie took the NWSL to court over her eligibility to play for the Portland Thorns. Up to that point, the league restricted players under the age of 18 from signing with teams. It was a fairly unique rule in the soccer world -- Moultrie could've already been a professional in Europe or playing in Major League Soccer in the U.S. if she was a boy.

The NWSL argued that they had instituted these rules "to protect minors at an important stage of development." Moultrie disagreed: "If I'm good enough, I'm old enough," she said, arguing that the decision to play should be in the hands of her and her guardians. More importantly, Moultrie's lawyers accused the NWSL of violating antitrust laws by blocking their client from negotiating with teams.

A judge found this argument compelling and sided with Moultrie, which allowed her to officially sign with the Thorns and make her debut on July 3, 2021. By the end of the month, the NWSL conceded defeat and opted not to appeal, instead reaching a settlement with Moultrie that ensured she could play for good.

Since then, Moultrie has accumulated more than 1,500 minutes of game time -- the equivalent of more than 16 games across the regular season and Challenge Cup. The benefit of such experience has been evident, with the now 17-year-old stunning onlookers with the quality of her play as a central midfielder or winger. While originally appearing raw and physically immature in 2021, Moultrie has evolved rapidly since, particularly from a technical and mental standpoint.

Moultrie's inch-perfect assist against Angel City in April and her audacious goal vs. the North Carolina Courage in May are evidence of this, as are the less flashy aspects of her play.

Moultrie's touches are neat and efficient, geared toward keeping her team's sequence of play ticking. Should she feel pressure behind her, Moultrie often cleverly uses her body to shield the ball, relying on her growing strength and balance to ride the challenge. Her movements to receive are similarly deliberate. Instead of gravitating to the location of the ball, she is more interested in providing tangible advantages for her team. That often entails investigating space between the lines, which allows Portland to play deadly penetrative passes.

However, when teammate and striker Sophia Smith drops into those same areas, Moultrie instantly recognizes the need to adapt. In these instances, the teenager tends to push further forward to occupy the defensive line, ensuring spatial balance and creating the potential for rotations that are very difficult to mark.

Already, the Thorns are reaping the rewards of investing in a prodigy. This has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the league. Indeed, there were probably already teams eager to follow in Portland's footsteps before Moultrie started impressing, but they still needed to wait for the NWSL to revise its regulations. After all, the league made an exception for Moultrie in response to her lawsuit, but the NWSL declined to go so far as eliminating the age-restriction policy in 2021, meaning other teams couldn't follow suit right away.

Jaedyn Shaw: Another exception for another exceptional player

A year later, the NWSL was once again forced to reconsider their rule on minors playing in the league when 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw expressed interest in going pro early. The league's then-new commissioner, Jessica Berman, indicated openness to Shaw's request: "This is a special circumstance that I believe requires us to show flexibility in how we execute our policies, and as a practical matter, is part of our ongoing review of our age restriction policy."

Berman eventually concluded that Shaw could join the NWSL's "discovery process." This roster mechanism is for players not under contract with the league and whose NWSL rights haven't been claimed by a team. It's perhaps a bit convoluted, but teams can submit a claim on a player by adding them to their "discovery list," with the league having a set procedure to decide on competing discovery claims. In Shaw's case, the San Diego Wave claimed discovery rights and ended up signing her.

The NWSL indicated that as was the case with Moultrie, this was a one-off influenced by factors specific to Shaw's situation, including that she would be turning 18 in a few months and she had "already taken the necessary steps to turn professional and forgo her NCAA eligibility."

Much like Portland, San Diego quickly started seeing the benefits of earning an exception to sign an exceptional young player. After scoring three goals in her first three appearances last season, Shaw has become a regular on coach Casey Stoney's team sheet, operating as a versatile central attacker. Shaw's comfort receiving to feet enables her to drop off and receive in pockets, where she leverages her agility and close control to spin around challenges and drive at or pass through retreating defenses.

Yet like Moultrie, Shaw isn't a "ball magnet," per se: She has the awareness to burst off the shoulder when necessary and displays a preternatural gift for attacking the box. Aside from one notable banger from distance, Shaw's early goal-scoring repertoire is dominated by relatively simple finishes that result from wily and varied movement into the penalty area. Whether it's running in behind, attacking the back post or waiting for a tap-in, Shaw seems to possess a veteran's understanding of movement and how to manipulate defenders.

Take her latest goal against the Orlando Pride -- Shaw starts her run on the "blind side" of the center-back, meaning she positions herself to the back of the defender, making it difficult to keep track of the attacker and the ball. Then, as the cross is about to be delivered, Shaw dips back in front of her marker, leaving no time for the defender to react because of the deception and timing of her movement.

While this is textbook for a forward, such runs are hard to master and many fail to even attempt them in the first place. These "simple" things are what separate great goal-scorers from the rest. Shaw still has a lot of soccer to play before she can be regarded that highly, but her innate understanding of angles and proficiency at accessing valuable box territory bode extremely well for the future.

More young talent floods the NWSL once the age restriction ends

With Moultrie and Shaw leading the way, the NWSL had moved in an obvious direction whereby any team that wanted to sign young talent should have the ability to do so, and a way to do it. On Nov. 14, 2022, the NWSL finally eliminated its age restriction and replaced it with a new roster rule: The so-called Under-18 Entry Mechanism.

There is a list of requirements and restrictions involved -- teams must obtain legal guardian approval, and they can't trade away a player until she turns 18, for instance, but teams quickly opted to take advantage of this change. Ahead of the 2023 season, Chloe Ricketts inked a three-year contract with the Washington Spirit at the age of 15 years and 283 days. This broke Olivia Moultrie's record as the youngest ever signee. Roughly three weeks later, Melanie Barcenas agreed to terms with the San Diego Wave and surpassed Ricketts' record, clocking in at 15 years and 183 days.

Given Ricketts' and Barcenas' age, both the Spirit and Wave have been cautious about how they've introduced them to the rigors of professional soccer. Ricketts has been limited to substitute appearances in the league, getting her one and only start thus far in the Challenge Cup. Meanwhile, Barcenas has only played 55 minutes across three games, debuting when her side was already 3-1 down in order to tone down the pressure of the moment.

Both players have been remarkably audacious in their limited time on the pitch. Each show an insatiable hunger to take players on, perform flashy tricks and make game-defining plays. Ricketts has already recorded her first official assist as a result of her bold nature, doing so after dribbling directly at two defenders against Orlando in the Challenge Cup. That she ended up losing the ball, only for it to still find its way to the eventual goal-scorer, Marissa Sheva, aptly captures the promise of youthful audacity and the rough edges that come with it.

Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson and the traditional means of finding young stars

While it is certain that there will be more groundbreaking stories like Ricketts and Barcenas, there are only so many prospects in that age range who have the talent to play alongside the likes of Christine Sinclair and Marta before getting their driver's license. If there is to be a ripple effect from the signings of all these teenage sensations, it will primarily come from the acquisition of slightly older teens via more conventional means.

The acquisitions of Trinity Rodman by the Washington Spirit in 2021 and Alyssa Thompson by Angel City in 2023 via the college draft are prime examples of this. Rodman's game-changing potential is no longer a secret, given her Rookie of the Year honors and incredible performance in the 2021 NWSL final. But Thompson, who entered the draft straight out of high school, is still revealing all that she is capable of.

Able to operate across the front line, Thompson has thrived on a counter-attacking team that functions at a pace unlike almost any other side in the division.

The 18-year-old's dribbling ability in this kind of environment has been jaw-dropping. Her explosiveness, low center-of-gravity and agility allow her to brush off hard challenges, blow by opponents at will, and stop on a dime before getting off a shot or cross.

It is no exaggeration to say that Thompson is a generational attacking talent, which is why she is already carrying an immense load right out of the gate. While the likes of Savannah McCaskill, Jun Endo, Claire Emslie, and Katie Johnson are all valuable contributors for Angel City in their own rights, it's evident that all of them exist in a system designed to exploit Thompson's rare characteristics. Only the very best rookies in league history, such as Rodman and Sophia Smith, have had attacks built around them that quickly.

However, the U.S. is not the only place where teams can unearth young gems as clubs are increasingly looking abroad to maximize their chances of finding the next big thing. For example, in 2022 the Orlando Pride signed 18-year-old attacker Haley Bugeja from Serie A club Sassuolo. She arrived as a highly rated prospect who possessed exciting dribbling and shot-creation qualities. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered her growth in the U.S., although she returned to action in the Challenge Cup last month.

The Pride have also acquired Amanda Allen, an 18-year-old hailing from Ontario, Canada. She had initially committed to Syracuse but decided to go pro instead, becoming only the second Canadian player to do so after forgoing college after Jordyn Huitema.

Allen has only made one start and one substitute appearance for the Pride thus far, but Orlando are clearly taking the patient road to success. As Haley Carter, Orlando's vice president of soccer operations and GM, explained: "Yes, it's pro sports so we need to drive and get results right away. ... But [Pride coach] Seb [Hines] and I and the rest of the staff really prioritize the development of players. That's something that historically the league has struggled with."

However, that may be changing. With the establishment of the Under-18 Entry Mechanism and the blossoming potential of the likes of Olivia Moultrie, Jaedyn Shaw and Alyssa Thompson, clubs are increasingly seeing the value of taking risks on young, unproven talent. What was once a mere cliché meant to bolster Moultrie's case for a professional contract is now becoming a mantra for teams to live by: "If you're good enough, you're old enough."