It was the 27th minute of Racing Louisville’s home game against league leaders San Diego Wave FC last month and Jaelin Howell and Savannah DeMelo stood over the ball for a free kick from about 25 yards out. of the goal. They weighed their options to beat Wave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, arguably the best goalkeeper in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Howell ran over the ball like a decoy, forcing the Wave defenders to deviate slightly from their fixed positions. DeMelo followed right behind her, firing a shot at Sheridan, who watched a vivid Kentucky sunset more suited to a summer night in San Diego. The ball went over the wall at five and Sheridan could only touch the fingertip as it flew into the top corner. The goal was stunning – it was DeMelo’s first as a professional and the match winner in a 1-0 final – but it was more than a new milestone for a top American prospect who struggled against the injuries throughout college. It was a symbolic streak of a unique trend in the NWSL this season: rookies are playing a bigger role than ever in supporting their NWSL teams.
League expansion, which means more roster spots available, along with temporary changes to NCAA rules to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic, has created an influx of rookie talent immediately entering jobs. leading roles in numbers never seen in the NWSL’s previous nine seasons. Howell and DeMelo were the second and fourth picks respectively in the NWSL College Draft in December, with both quickly becoming starting central midfielders for Racing Louisville.
“I think rookie year is a tough year, and I just want to learn as much as I can learn from older players, whether it’s playing No. 6, No. 8, No. 10 or on the wing,” DeMelo said after making the NWSL Team of the Month in May. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to help this team, and I wouldn’t receive the accolades without the rest of my team. So while it’s an accolade for me, it’s also for my team. whom I can thank.”
For years, DeMelo and Howell have been tipped as the future stars of the U.S. national team, with Howell already winning call-ups. These may be exceptional talents that are part of Racing Louisville’s rebuild, but these are just two of the many rookies who are significant starters or players for their teams.
Look at forwards Diana Ordoñez and Elyse Bennett, selected sixth and seventh overall respectively by North Carolina Courage and Kansas City Current. They each quickly seized leading roles, scoring crucial and game-changing goals for their teams at the start of the season.
Bennett has recorded two games with multiple assists in the Challenge Cup and continues to switch games off the bench – such as on May 14, when she came off the bench with half an hour left to score a goal and an assist – and in starting roles. Ordoñez has scored three goals in all competitions this season, including the Challenge Cup semi-final winner and a bold goal inside the penalty area, against the run of play, to help Courage score a point on the road in Houston at the end of May.
1 overall selection Naomi Girma has played every minute as a centre-back for San Diego so far this season and after an injury to Tierna Davidson she could start in that role for the United States in qualifying for the World Cup in July. No player has more recoveries in the NWSL this season (97 in nine games, 12 more than anyone else) than Girma, according to TruMedia. (Girma also landed at No. 11 on ESPN’s list of the best players aged 21 and under.)
First-round picks of generational talent should adapt more easily to professional play, but the depth of this class of NWSL rookies sets them apart from previous years.
Historically, the NWSL has been a tough place for rookies to settle in quickly. It’s a transitional physical league that’s long been anchored by nearly the entire United States National Team roster. Most No. 1 picks have had long careers, but typically only a handful of rookies enter the serious game on opening day. This year, that number is well over a dozen – and they are having tangible impacts. Forward Ava Cook, a second-round pick, leads the NWSL with three assists and is thriving quietly behind Mallory Pugh in Chicago as a forward. Late-round picks Olivia Van der Jagt of OL Reign and Jenna Winebrenner of Kansas City are among those in the 2022 draft pushed into occasional starting roles.
The uniqueness caused by the pandemic has also created a unique situation for the league.
College players, even if selected by a team in the 2021 draft, had the option of playing a fifth season in the fall of 2021 thanks to an NCAA provision taking into account the pandemic. Many select players played in the NWSL last year, including top picks Emily Fox (Louisville) and Trinity Rodman (the Washington Spirit), who were among the few to seamlessly integrate into the league. Some players, however, took advantage of the extra eligibility and postponed their professional careers, making it their rookie season.
Portland Thorns midfielder Sam Coffey is arguably the most impressive of the group who deferred. Coffey was a second-round pick in 2021, but stayed an additional season at Penn State. She came into a talented Thorns midfield this year and took on the No.6 role from day one, sweeping past the back line and taking on key responsibilities like corner kicks, from which the Thorns directly generated goals. Coffey was just named to the U.S. national team’s roster for the June friendlies against Colombia and narrowly missed out on the 23-man list for the World Cup, despite never being previously called up by the senior national team.
The other 2021 second-round picks, Mikayla Cluff (née Colohan) and Kesley Turnbow, are also key midfield cogs for their teams in their first few months as professionals. The Orlando Pride are a better team with Cluff’s dynamic runs and quick decision-making higher up the field, while Turnbow is often the leader in San Diego’s stifling press. Amirah Ali (San Diego) and Alex Loera (Kansas City), who was the 36th of 40 draft picks last year, could be the thieves in this draft.
This shift is taking place at the league level alongside the U.S. National Team’s youth revolution. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s qualification list announced on Monday confirms this transition, with 10 players aged 25 or younger. This marks a huge change for the Americans: the United States were the oldest team in the previous two World Cups. It was such a clear shift in approach that it was perhaps more surprising to see a veteran like Megan Rapinoe make the roster than a young player like Rodman, with just three caps.
As the NWSL serves as a key development ground for the US national team, this trend looks likely to continue. After all, with the way rookies have thrived in the NWSL so far this year, this group of American players will likely only get younger.