The Thorns beat Racing Louisville on Saturday 2-0, and the win came with a major milestone for women’s soccer in the United States: 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie made her Thorns debut, becoming the youngest player to ever compete in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Moultrie’s debut was a long-time coming after years of purgatory, training with the Thorns but being blocked by the NWSL from playing in games for the club, which prompted her to file a lawsuit. Last week a judge ordered the league to sign off on a contract, and the Thorns signed her to a three-year deal.
She traveled to Louisville and started on the Thorns bench Saturday, but didn’t have a heads-up her big moment was about to arrive.
“I didn’t know it was gonna happen tonight,” a laughing Moultrie told the Oregonian/OregonLive. “I found out about 30 seconds before I went into the game.”
An early Thorns lead cleared the way for Moultrie’s first professional minutes.
In the 28th minute, Rocky Rodriguez was tripped in the box by the outstretched leg of Louisville’s Yuki Nagasato after a corner kick. The referee awarded a penalty kick, and Rodriguez stepped up to take it, coolly finishing left as goalkeeper Michelle Betos guessed right.
Simone Charley doubled the Thorns’ lead with a gorgeous header in the 52nd minute. Emily Menges spotted Charley’s run toward the far post and delivered a long cross. Charley redirected the ball back toward the other side of goal with a looping header.
Moultrie, who wore No. 42, entered the game in the 83rd minute as a substitute.
“When I saw my number pop up there in green, 42, and I heard my name called, I had this straight face the whole time and then, as soon as they called it, a smile just popped up on my face,” Moultrie said, smiling. “I couldn’t help but be so excited to just sprint out there and get started.”
It was a relatively uneventful debut for the rookie, as late-game debuts often are.
At one point she received a pass and was immediately closed in by two Louisville defenders and she passed it back. Later, she dribbled into the box and slipped a pass to Sophia Smith, who then had a cross blocked. She made a trailing run on a counterattack and was open to get the ball, but the play died before she could.
It wasn’t exactly highlight reel stuff, but it was a significant moment for women’s soccer, marking the first time a player made an American professional debut while still in high school.
“Physically she showed that she belongs,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. “She won some duels and had intensity in the right moments. It’s great to get her on the ball in some of those pockets we love to see her. Good start, and hopefully we can see her a little bit more in the next few months.”
Parsons gave her confidence before she went in, Moultrie said.
“He was like, ‘Go be you. Don’t be nervous. You’re ready for it.’ It was just the perfect words to send me out there and for me to feel ready,” she said.
Arguing that the NWSL had no justification for a minimum age requirement of 18, Moultrie won her case when a judge ruled the league had violated anti-trust laws. The judge also said that the NWSL created a double standard because Major League Soccer, the NWSL’s equivalent on the men’s side, allows teenagers to compete.
In 2019, Moultrie turned down a scholarship to play college soccer for UNC and instead went pro, signing a six-figure deal with Nike — but she had no pro club to play for. Sources since 2019 have said the Thorns were trying behind the scenes to get approval to sign Moultrie, who moved to Portland to join the Thorns academy and trained with the senior team.
“She’s had a lot of stress and noise and I’ve never once had to say to her, ‘Ignore the noise and stay focused’ because that’s who she is,” Parsons said. “She has some good mental skills to be present and continue moving forward in training and developing. We saw good glimpses from her tonight.”
Moultrie’s No. 42 was given to her when she first arrived in Portland in 2019, and now she plans to keep it.
“It was given to me and so it’s a special number to me forever because it’s the first number I played in,” she said.
Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby came up with a crucial save within the first 30 seconds of the second half to preserve the Thorns’ early lead. Louisville’s Lauren Milliet cut her way through the Thorns defense to find space and chipped a pass to Nagasato in front of goal. Nagasato took a one-time swipe at it, but Bixby dove to ground to smother the shot.
The Thorns were missing their national team stars Saturday, who are already gone in preparation of this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Representing the U.S. will be midfielder Crystal Dunn, goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, midfielder Lindsey Horan and defender Becky Sauerbrunn. Captain and midfielder Christine Sinclair will represent Canada.
The Olympic women’s soccer tournament begins July 21, with the gold medal match scheduled for August 6. The NWSL is not taking a break for the Olympics, and the Thorns have signed forward Raisa Strom-Okimoto and midfielder Taylor Porter as “National Team Replacement players,” which fill temporary roster slots, per NWSL rules.
Parsons will probably be watching the Olympics closely — competing there will be the Netherlands, the national team he is taking over after this season with the Thorns ends.
The Thorns were coming into Saturday off a tough loss in North Carolina one week ago — tough not because they were beaten badly, but because they were even with the Courage in every key stat except the score. That loss ended a three-game winning streak for the Thorns.
The last time the Thorns faced Louisville in their first-ever meeting last month, the Thorns cruised to a 3-0 win.
Louisville was awarded an NWSL expansion team in 2019 and planned to be named Proof Louisville FC, a reference to both Kentucky bourbon and authenticity. After fan outcry, the name was changed to Racing Louisville FC, a reference to Kentucky horse-racing and an homage to the many historic soccer clubs named Racing around the world.
Up next, the Thorns host NJ/NY Gotham FC on July 11. Whether Moultrie plays then or not, it’s clear she will continue to see the field for the Thorns.
“The only words that I could relay to anybody watching is just that, not only do dreams come true, but when you set your mind to something and you work for it every single day, these things can happen,” Moultrie said of finally making her debut. “I just hope that everybody can live by those words.”
— Caitlin Murray for The Oregonian/OregonLive