The Next is Now: A Look at the NWSL’s Top Young Stars

With more and more young players making an immediate impact in the NWSL, we take a look at a handful of talents with not only bright futures, but presents as well. 

An eventful offseason of player movement in the NWSL — which consisted of not only the college draft, but also an expansion draft for the league’s two new California-based teams — is behind us. Before we know it, the 2022 season will be under way. We’re currently about two weeks from the start of the six-week training camp, which will then give way to the third annual Challenge Cup (which this year has adopted a group format), with regular season play to begin in May.

As we look ahead to the new season, it’s worthwhile to celebrate the league’s great young talents. While the players below are all, of course, undeniably young, among them there is an interesting mix of newcomers eager to build their reputations at the highest level, as well as some “young veterans” who have plenty of experience already despite their age.

Trinity Rodman

It happened somewhere in the final few moments of the NWSL championship game. A flash of innate brilliance that’s almost immediately forgotten, but delivers a message. Not long after delivering the sublime cross that led to Kelley O’Hara’s 97th-minute goal that secured the title for the Washington Spirit, there was still the matter of killing the clock at hand. Trinity Rodman carried the ball from the Spirit’s penalty box in full sprint towards mid-field. It was the 102nd minute, but Rodman showed no sign of fatigue as she dashed past her opponents.

Finally, she was converged upon by a pair of Red Star defenders — but it didn’t matter. Without breaking stride, she pirouetted and evaded them both, all while maintaining inch-perfect control. It was perhaps this moment in which she announced that this was now her league.

If you’ve got even a passing familiarity with the NBA, the first time you see the name, your first thought is probably, “Is she…?” In fact, she is. But that’s not the point. She’s addressed it herself better than anyone ever could.

The reality is that Rodman, in just about every meaningful way, is the platonic ideal for a superstar. She’s wise beyond her years, both on and off the pitch. She’s agile, explosive, unselfish, clinical, and supremely confident. All at 19 years of age.

Rodman has basically never not been a prodigy. At 10, she began playing youth soccer with SoCal Blues — the team that went undefeated for five years and won four national championships in the Elite Clubs National League. When the time came for college, she first committed to UCLA, before opting to attend Washington State with her older brother, who plays basketball there. However, after the Pac-12 soccer season was lost to COVID-19, she decided to forego the college game altogether and declare for the draft. In January 2021, at just under 18 years and eight months of age, she became the youngest player ever drafted into the NWSL, when she was selected second overall by the Spirit.

As a professional, she hit the ground sprinting. Despite managing just one goal and assist in her first six games, Rodman ultimately racked up six goals and five assists in the regular season. Those 11 goal contributions placed her second in the league, behind only Gotham FC’s Ifeoma Onumonu (who had 12) and, along with Onumonu, Rodman was the only player to rank in the top 10 league wide in both goals and assists. For her trouble, she was named the league’s Rookie of the Year, U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Player of the Year, and earned a place on the NWSL Best XI.

She was at her best in the playoffs, with seven shots on target in three games, an equalizing goal in the semifinals against OL Reign, and a virtuosic performance in the Final that included a game-winning assist.

Rodman is special. She’s not next. She’s now.

Mallory Pugh, Chicago Red Stars

For those who’ve followed the game for some time, it’s easy to forget that Mallory Pugh is still, in fact, quite young. That probably comes with the territory for a player who’s been on the national radar since age 14. In 2015, Pugh was named the U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year, and in 2016 she scored in her senior national team debut at 17, and became the youngest-ever U.S. Olympic goal scorer at 18.

In 2017, she left UCLA prior to her freshman season to join the Washington Spirit. Though she was a finalist for NWSL Rookie of the Year in 2017, knee and hip injuries limited Pugh to just 10 goals in 40 appearances for the Spirit. In 2020, she was traded to Sky Blue (now Gotham) FC for a four-draft-pick haul. She made a single appearance for Sky Blue before being traded again in December 2020, to Chicago.

Since the trade, Pugh seems to have shaken the injury bug, appearing in 25 of 26 games for the Red Stars in 2021, and logging at least 72 minutes 22 times. She was one of the NWSL’s more productive forwards in 2021, and her dominant showing in the Red Stars’ playoff opener against Gotham FC showed that she’s still got what it takes to be a star.

Along with Kealia Watt, Sarah Woldmoe and the next name on our list, Pugh was vital to the Red Stars’ run to the NWSL Championship game. And she still doesn’t turn 24 until the end of April.

Tierna Davidson, Chicago Red Stars

A native of Menlo Park, Davidson debuted in college with Stanford in 2016. As a freshman, she started every game and was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team and All-Pac-12 Second Team. As a sophomore, she won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and College Cup Most Outstanding Defensive Player, and helped Stanford to a national title. She lost all but three games of her junior year to a broken ankle, at which point she decided to forego her last year of college eligibility and declare for the NWSL College Draft. The first player ever to enter the draft with college eligibility remaining also became the first player selected in the 2019 draft.

To say that she’s justified her lofty selection is an understatement. In 2019, in addition to being selected as the youngest member of the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team, Davidson appeared in 13 regular season games, plus the NWSL playoff semifinal. The Red Stars won 10 of those games and lost just twice, with Davidson playing all 90 minutes on each occasion. In 2021 she was back at it, appearing in 20 of a possible 27 regular season and playoff games. Only twice did she not play 90 minutes: Once during the regular season, and again in the NWSL Championship game…when she started and played all 120 minutes.

Bethany Balcer, OL Reign

Even in today’s sporting landscape, with advanced scouting and the omnipresent internet, talent can slip through the cracks. Bethany Balcer was a dominant force in college, but because she wasn’t playing at the NCAA Division I level, she wasn’t as highly touted as her future peers in her draft class.

For four years at NAIA Spring Arbour University in Michigan, Balcer balled out. She played 98 games, during which she scored a silly 129 goals. She led the Cougars to four consecutive NAIA Final Fours, and a pair of national titles. And yet, on NWSL draft day in 2019, her name went uncalled.

She was extended a training camp invite by OL Reign. Even then, there was no plan for her tenure with the club to be a particularly lengthy one. And yet, through hard work and a bit of serendipity, Balcer created an opportunity and grabbed it by the throat.

In 2019, she took part in every OL Reign regular season and playoff game, finding the net six times, assisting on two other goals, and winning the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Her 2021 season was every bit as prolific. Balcer played in all but one of the club’s games, finding the net nine times, good for second (tied with Margaret Purce and Rachel Daly) in the league.

By the time the 2022 NWSL season kicks off, Balcer will be 25, and thus outside the purview of this list. Don’t care. Some rules exist to be broken, and some stories deserve to be told whenever possible.

Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns

Like Tierna Davidson, Sophia Smith is a Stanford alum who entered the NWSL draft with college eligibility remaining, and has made good on her “can’t miss” talent.

Over two college seasons with Stanford, Smith scored 24 goals in 33 appearances, and helped the Cardinal (along with Davidson) to the 2019 national title. In the 2020 draft, Smith became the third straight Stanford player (following Davidson in 2019, and Andi Sullivan in 2018) to be selected No. 1 overall.

Smith lost what should have been her rookie season, appearing in just five competitive games (the NWSL Fall Series and one international friendly) in all of 2020. However, in what was effectively a rookie season in 2021, she was as good as advertised, taking part in 21 of 24 regular season games for the Portland Thorns — who racked up a league-best 44 points — netting seven goals and leading the league in shots on target.

Ebony Salmon, Racing Louisville

Ebony Salmon’s road to potential stardom has been more circuitous than one would expect, both given her age (20 until late January) and her talent.

Born in England, Salmon joined the Aston Villa youth academy and was promoted to the first team at just 16. Her debut season in England’s second tier was a successful one, scoring seven times in 12 matches, and nine times in 16 total appearances. She then left Villa to join Manchester United’s newly-formed women’s team.

However, she never made an appearance for the Man United ladies, and instead spent 2019 on loan with Sheffield United. Again, she was exceedingly impressive, scoring eight times in 11 appearances. In 2019, she signed with Bristol City, then in the top tier of English women’s football. Bristol battled relegation both seasons that Salmon was on the team, but she still showed promise, scoring 18 goals across in her time with the club.

Last summer, Salmon signed a two-year contract with NWSL expansion side Racing Louisville. She scored 74 seconds into her NWSL debut, added five more goals, and ended the season even with Rodman and Megan Rapinoe for 10th in the league.

She’ll be only a couple of months past her 21st birthday when the 2022 season start kicks off. It’s reasonable to assume that Salmon has found a home in the NWSL, and has a bright future ahead of her.

Emily Fox, Racing Louisville

Emily Fox is something of a Tierna Davidson starter kit.

After starring for North Carolina in college, the versatile defender broke (if only momentarily) Stanford’s stranglehold on the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NWSL draft, and became Racing Louisville’s first-ever draftee.

Though Racing struggled for results, Fox was consistently excellent. She played in 23 of 24 regular season games, 22 as a starter. She was also active and disruptive defensively, with 46 interceptions in the regular season, good for a three-way tie for sixth in the league. All of that was good enough to secure a spot on the NWSL Best XI Second Team.

Fox, alongside Salmon, CeCe Kizer and a pair of incoming midfielders — 2021 No. 2 and No. 4 overall picks Jaelin Howell and Savannah DeMelo — suggests a potential powerhouse in the works in Louisville.

Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “The first pick in the NSWL Draft, from Stanford University…”

The first draft pick of the expansion San Diego Wave marked the fourth time in the last five years that the No. 1 overall pick in the NWSL draft has come from Palo Alto, and the third time in four years that the top pick has been a defender.

Born in San Jose, California to parents originally from Ethiopia, Naomi Girma enters the pro game with all of the credentials that suggest future stardom. She’s played for the U.S. U-17, U-19 and U-20 teams, winning CONCACAF crowns with the last two, and in 2020, was voted U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Player of the Year.

Jun Endo, Angel City FC

Like the Wave, the 2022 NWSL season will be one of firsts for Angel City FC. Unlike the Wave, however, Angel City opted to use its draft capital to acquire veterans via trade. As a result, the club didn’t make a selection in either of the first two rounds of the draft, but will enter the season with a loaded roster, led by the likes of defender Sarah Gorden, midfielders Savannah McCaskill and Julie Ertz, and attackers Christen Press and Jasmyne Spencer.

A notable exception to Angel City’s veteran-first approach came in late December, with the signing of 21-year-old Japanese international Jun Endo, for an undisclosed fee, from Tokyo Verdy Beleza — the only senior club Endo’s played for since her 2018 graduation from JFA Academy Fukushima.

Endo also already has considerable international experience. She was a member of the Japanese side at the 2016 U-17 World Cup, scoring three times in four matches as Japan finished second. Two years later, she scored twice in six matches as Japan won the 2018 U-20 World Cup. She’s since racked up 21 senior international caps.

Joining a front line that already includes the likes of Press and Spencer will present challenges, but it’s not tough to see the framework of a potent attack.

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