With history made, Moultrie's future can come into focus

20210703 olivia moultrie

In tonight’s 84th minute, Olivia Moultrie claimed another piece of NWSL history. Three days after becoming the youngest player to sign an NWSL contract, the 15-year-old from Wilsonville, Oregon, became the youngest to play in a league game, entering the Portland Thorns’ match at Racing Louisville with six minutes remaining to help see out a 2-0 win. Moments later, she took her first professional touch.

The rest of the day was unremarkable, but unremarkable in the way games are supposed to be for attackers protecting leads. For the eight minutes she played after time was added on, Moultrie made smart passes, tried to pressure opponents, and made the most of the action she saw in attacking midfield. It was limited time, but she looked the NWSL part.

“I'm so excited that the debut was able to happen tonight and that I could get going and get on the field,” Moultrie told reporters after the game. She also spoke to the opportunities she might have over the next six weeks, with five Thorns away at the Olympics in Tokyo.

“With these games coming, I just hope that I can continue to prove myself in training and do what I need to do and put myself in position to play,” she explained. “I hope that I can just do what I need to help the team and help us win. That's what I'm really focused on.”

Think about what you were doing in July as a 15-year-old. For some of us, it’s hard to remember. Summer breaks as a high schooler mean endless days running together until one day, it was the first day of school. July as a 15-year-old isn’t supposed to be about accomplishment.

Contrast that with Moultrie. She just played in a professional soccer game. For so many, that’s the ultimate dream, and she’s accomplished it before graduating high school. Can you imagine the pure glee you’d have in that moment? She was playing against one World-Cup winner (Yuki Nagasato), with another (Meghan Klingenberg), and sharing midfield with another teammate who’s been to a World Cup (Rocky Rodríguez). Those are the players Moultrie is competing with before she can legally drive a car. Hopefully there’s a point tonight where she says to herself, “I did it. I really did it.”

In the wake of history, two caveats will need to be repeated, because a lot of people are going to offer some Olivia Moultrie analysis. First, she only played eight minutes. That’s not enough time to say more than something vague, like she “she looked the NWSL part. This may have been Moultrie’s debut, but it wasn’t enough to make judgements.

The second caveat is just as obvious, though it’s one that cuts both ways: She is only 15 years old. That needs to be remembered not only for its history but also in terms of her journey. Whatever critiques, judgments, or advice people will eventually cast may be too premature, and also too strong. Not only have we not seen enough to judge the player, but this version of Moultrie is far from a finished product.

“I know everyone on the outside will be stuck on two digits, or the date of birth,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons conceded. “But for us, she's a player who is going to get it right. She's a player that's going to get it wrong. She's going to have good games. She's going to have average games, and it’s going to be a journey.”

Instead of dwelling on the performance, it’s better to focus on the context, or what made tonight historic. Moultrie is now not only the youngest player in NWSL history, but she is the youngest by a wide margin. The league had been operating with a minimum age requirement or 18 years old, before. Moultrie doesn’t turn 16 until November. Not only is it an accomplishment to get your first minutes this soon, but it’s a reflection of all your work. Moultrie wasn’t this player when she began training with the Thorns as a 13-year-old. A lot of time went into what the public just saw.

“The only words that I can relay to everybody else and anybody watching is that not only do dreams come true,” Moultrie said, “but when you set your mind to something and you work for it every single day, these things can happen. I just hope that everybody can live by those words.”

That work is part of these accomplishments are about. Amid the saga that played out in public around Moultrie’s first professional deal — the legal side, allocation drama, then trade needed to keep her with the Thorns — people were left speculating about the player’s level. All they knew was she was 15, has been in the public eye for years, but was otherwise unproven. The lack of information bred speculation, and doubts.

What went unsaid: There was a reason why the Thorns wanted to give Moultrie a contract. And there was a reason she felt ready for it. There was a reason why, in the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, the team that initially acquired her NWSL rights — a team that faced her two in preseason — called her “uncommonly mature and capable,” and said they “look forward to seeing [her] in the NWSL.” There is a reason why both team and player dedicated two-plus years to this moment.

Now it’s time for the rest of the world to see. Is she just a prospect? Capable of contributing now? Or is there more? We still don’t know. All we know for sure that history has been made. Olivia Moultrie is now the youngest player NWSL history. Now, we can keep our focus on the field.

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