Ellie Carpenter, Canberra

Distance has never been a problem for new Ellie Carpenter. On the contrary, it’s always been a sign of progress.

From the two-hour drives her parents made after school to get her to training, to the 190-mile move the family undertook when she was 12 – when it was clear both her and her brother, Jeremy, could have professional futures – Carpenter’s athletic ascent has been defined by distance and the lengths she was willing to travel to reach her goals.

Today, the 17-year-old right back makes her biggest leap yet, signing with Thorns FC – the first move out of Australia in her professional career.

“What we’re getting is a really good young player that has the potential to be a top draw in the future,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said about his team’s latest signing. “But it’s going to take time. It will take support, it’s going to take a lot of hard work …

“[The signing] massive for the club,” Parsons admitted. “I would say the same for her, to be able to get into this environment at the age she’s at, where she is in her development.”

Though the NWSL will be a new experience for the Cowra, New South Wales-born defender, it’s just the latest in a series of escalating challenges for one of Australia’s brightest young sports stars.

At 15, in the W-League’s 2015-16 season, Carpenter made her debut with the Western Sydney Wanderers, playing every minute during her first professional campaign. Six months later, Carpenter broke through with her senior national team, appearing in March 2016’s Asian Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. That same summer, the newly-16-year-old became the youngest Australian at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, making the Matildas’ squad and becoming the youngest female soccer player in the history of the competition.

Since then, Carpenter has continued her career in Australia, playing for Western Sydney and, during the most recent W-League season, Canberra United. Along the way, while juggling studies at Sydney’s Westfield Sports High, Carpenter has collected 13 senior national team appearances, slowly establishing herself as one of head coach Alen Stajcic’s first choices in the Matlidas’ squad.

"Ellie is so driven and intrinsically motivated and just has that winning mentality through the roof,” Carpenter’s W-League coach, 130-time Australian international Heather Garriock, told the Canberra Times last week, describing her right back as the best athlete she’d ever seen. “[H]er enthusiasm and work ethic is second to none.”

Carpenter’s debut with Portland will be delayed, slightly – her not being allowed to debut with the team until she turns 18 on April 28 -– but when she does adorn the Portland kit, she will immediately become one of the most athletic options the Thorns have deployed at her position. Trained as a sprinter through much of her youth, Carpenter is already one of the fastest players in the Australian national team, and although many players her age have trouble with the physical demands of professional soccer, Carpenter’s strength has already proven a match for senior-level competition.

“I would say in the last few years, you look at some of the most athletic players coming from college, it takes them a couple of years to have the same physical impact in the league,” Parsons said. “If Ellie, at age 17, is already having an impact that a 24-year-old has, and the rise continues, it’s scary.”

Parsons, though, cautioned against seeing Carpenter’s physical maturity as a sign that she’s close to the finished product.

“She has a lot of great learning still to do. I think the players in our environment here will support her incredibly well to continue her great momentum.”

That momentum has continued during her three professional seasons back home. She was Canberra’s Player of the Year last season, was previously linked with a move to Europe and, as of March 2017, already has a goal at international level. Beyond being more physically prepared than most 18 year olds, Carpenter is already producing results.

It’s a preparedness that should ease her transition to the NWSL, a league that’s notorious for its often extreme pace and physicality. Not that Carpenter needs any special help. Going long distances to find new challenges has always been a part of Carpenter’s path. Ultimately, Ellie Carpenter’s latest leap may prove less about being ready for the NWSL and more about when the NWSL will see the best of Ellie Carpenter.

“We’ll see flashes of it,” Parsons predicts. “The crowd will be blown away, at times. But we won’t see the best form from her until 2019, if not 2020. And then, we’ll potentially be looking at one of the top players in the world.”