Why It Matters: Olivia Moultrie is now a full Portland Thorn

20210630 olivia moultrie

Now, the story shifts to the field.

After months of focus on whether Olivia Moultrie could sign her first professional contract, the 15-year-old midfielder is officially a Portland Thorn. Today, the club confirmed the acquisition of the Thorns Academy player’s NWSL rights, with Moultrie subsequently signing a three-year contract.

“This step is very important for Olivia,” Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons said in the Thorns’ announcement. “For this club to have the commitment and vision to sign a young, talented player that we really believe in is immense. Olivia has continued to grow and push forward throughout her time here and has taken every challenge and turned it into an opportunity.”

The themes of challenge and opportunity will define Moultrie’s next years on the field. Though she’s gained the right to play, she has to compete with one of the most talented rosters in the NWSL, if not the women’s game, period. The challenges of being such a young player trying to perform at such a high level will come into focus, as will the attentions of opponents for whom her age will be irrelevant.

Her opportunity starts now. But so does her challenge.

How We Got Here

Two years ago, Moultrie and her family relocated to the Portland area so Olivia could join Portland’s academy and train with the Thorns. From the start, her goal was to win a contract with the Thorns, but at the time, players her age were not allowed to sign deals in the NWSL. She was 13 years old.

Now, that’s changed. As of today, Moultrie is both a Portland Thorn and the youngest player in NWSL history. When she plays, she’ll add another youngest to that list — youngest to appear in an NWSL game, though she has played for the Thorns before. She took part in the team’s preseason invitational in 2019, and she has consistently played in preseason games and scrimmages ever since.

“At the end of [the 2021] preseason, we got paused, there, because Liv was about to be a part involved in everything," Parsons said. "She played against OL Reign twice. In the second game against OL Reign, she was one of the strongest performers. We got to see that against experienced NWSL players.

“We were playing Thorns [versus] Thorns, throughout; [against] the Timbers’ boys’ academy. So she was playing every moment, every minute. And then we had to pause, because of the [season].”

Ultimately, we’re here because the Thorns felt Moultrie was worthy of a professional deal, but with her first contract settled, Moultrie’s story shifts. It’s no longer about where we are, or how we got here. In terms of when she’ll debut, Moultrie’s story is again about where she’s going,  now.

Why This Matters

The historic nature of this signing should speak for itself. How much that history will matter depends on how many players follow, and the standard they can maintain when competing against the pros. For now and for the first time, there is a 15-year-old on an active NWSL roster. Unquestionably, that’s breakthrough.

In terms of the Thorns, why this matters exists in two levels. In the present, they clearly feel that Moultrie could possibly contribute, and while their midfield is loaded when the team is at full strength, it won’t be at that level for another month-plus. Crystal Dunn is away at the Olympics. So is Lindsey Horan. Christine Sinclair is, too. There are minutes to be won in the middle.

That’s not to say those minutes will go to Moultrie. The team has Celeste Boureille, Rocky Rodríguez, Yazmeen Ryan and Angela Salem. In addition, Marissa Everett, a forward in name, is capable of occupying Sinclair’s spot as the team’s most advanced midfielder. Defenders like Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka and Christen Westphal are capable of playing in the middle, too. The Thorns may be missing significant pieces, but they’re not short on options. Moultrie will have to earn her spot.

In the future, the signing could have even more significance. Moultrie’s promise was evident when she arrived in Portland, and it has only grown in her time training with the team. The whole premise behind the Thorn’s commitment is the idea her talent may be special. Though that promise undoubtedly has to be cultivated, Moultrie’s best-case scenarios are powerful. There’s a reason why she was offered a scholarship to North Carolina at 11, then turned pro before ever reaching Chapel Hill.

Why It Matters: Olivia Moultrie is now a full Portland Thorn - Olivia Moultrie is a Thorn

What’s Next

First, Moultrie has to make a gameday squad. Then she has to play. Then she has to prove she can contribute. That part isn’t so mysterious, partly because it isn’t unique to her. As of now, Moultrie’s competing for time, just like the rest of the Thorns.

The bigger part of today’s news is the ripple effect. Over nine years, we’ve followed a league that had a standard path to rosters. Unless you were a foreign signing, you went to college and got drafted four years later. Over time, that process evolved, allowing players like Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Ashley Sanchez to turn pro early. Now, a four-year path is no longer the only one.

Has another path opened? For Moultrie, it has. It remains to be seen if others will follow. It’s one of many reasons why her precedent will stay in focus.