That was the 27th minute of Racing Louisville’s home game against league leaders San Diego Wave last month, and Jaylene Howell and Savannah DeMello were standing over the ball to take a free kick about 25 yards from the goal. They outlined their options for how to beat Wave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Women’s National Football League.
Howell ran over the ball as a snare, forcing the Wave defenders to move slightly from their designated positions. DeMelo followed right behind her, and a bullet hit Sheridan, who gazed into a vibrant Kentucky sunset befitting a summer evening in San Diego. The ball cleared the five-man wall and Sheridan could only get it with his finger when he flew into the top corner. The goal was stunning – it was DeMelo’s first as a pro and the eventual winner 1-0 – but it was more than just a new milestone for a major American who struggled with injuries throughout college. It was an emblematic sequence of a unique trend playing in the NFL this season: the rookies are playing a greater role in supporting their NWSL teams than ever before.
The expansion of the league, which means more slates of candidates, along with temporary changes to the NCAA rules to account for the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to an influx of rising talent who immediately began playing prominent roles in numbers previously unseen in the previous nine seasons of NWSL. Howell and DeMelo were the second and fourth picks, respectively, in the NWSL College Draft in December, as both quickly became Racing Louisville’s central midfielders.
“I think a rookie year is a tough year, and I just want to take advantage of everything I can learn from the older players, whether that’s playing the No. 6, No. 8, No. 10 or out on the wing,” DeMelo said after forming this month’s May’s NWSL team. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to help this team, and I wouldn’t get accolades without the rest of my team. And as much as it is a decoration for me, it is also for my team that I can thank. “
For years, both DeMelo and Howell have been touted as future US national team stars, with Howell already getting call-ups. They may be some of the super talents who are part of the rebuilding of Racing Louisville, but they’re also just two of many starters who are important starters or role players for their teams.
Look at forwards Diana Ordonez and Elise Bennett, who were picked sixth and seventh overall by the brave North Carolina and current Kansas City players respectively. Each has quickly absorbed prominent roles, scoring crucial goals and changing results for their teams early in the season.
Bennett scored two multi-assist games in the Challenge Cup and continues to change matches off the bench – like on May 14, when she came off the bench for half an hour to play for a goal and assist – and in starting innings. Ordoñez has three goals in all competitions this season, including a game-winner in the Challenge Cup semi-finals and an audacious goal inside the six-yard area, against the playing track, to help the guts snatch a point on the road in Houston at the end of May.
1 overall pick, Naomi Germa has played every minute of the San Diego center back so far this season and after injury Terna Davidson, she could start in that role for the United States during the World Cup playoffs in July. According to TruMedia, no player has had more recovery in the NFL this season (97 in nine games, 12 more than any other player). (Germa also reached number 11 on ESPN’s list of the best players age 21 or younger.)
First-generation talent picks should adapt more easily to the professional game, but the depth of the NWSL Junior class sets it apart from previous years.
Historically, the NWSL is a difficult place for beginners to settle in quickly. It is a physically transitional league that has long anchored almost the entire United States national team squad. Most of the topping picks have enjoyed long careers, but usually a few newbies get into serious playtime from opening day. This year, that number crossed the dozens – and they’re making tangible impacts. Forward Ava Cook, a second-round pick, leads the NWSL with three assists and is quietly thriving behind Mallory Pugh in Chicago as the industry’s playmaker. In the late round, OL Reign’s Olivia van der Jagt and Kansas City’s Jenna Winebrenner were among those who entered the 2022 draft in occasional starting innings.
The exclusivity brought about by the pandemic has also created a unique situation for the league.
College players, even if selected by a team in the 2021 draft, have the ability to play a fifth season in the fall of 2021 thanks to an NCAA provision that represents the pandemic. Several of the NFL’s selected players played last year, including top players Emily Fox (Louisville) and Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit), who were among those few who seamlessly integrated into the league. However, some players took advantage of the additional eligibility and postponed their careers, making this their rookie season.
Portland Thorns midfielder Sam Coffey is arguably the most impressive of the group to be postponed. Kofi was a second-round pick in 2021, but stayed an extra season at Penn State. She stepped into the talented Thorns midfield this year and occupied the number 6 role from day one, sweeping in front of the backline and taking on key responsibilities like corner kicks, through which Thorns hit the goals squarely. Kofi was just named to the US national team squad for June’s friendlies against Colombia and missed the 23-man squad for World Cup qualifiers even though he had never before been called up by the senior national team.
His 2021 second-round picks Mikaela Claff (née Colohan) and Kesley Turnbow are also key midfield gears for their teams in their early months as pros. Orlando Pride is a better team with dynamic Cluff runs and quick decision making at the top of the field, while Turnbow is often the leader in high-throttle pressure in San Diego. Amira Ali (San Diego) and Alex Laura (Kansas City), who were 36th out of 40 picks last year, could be a recruiting stealer.
This transformation is happening at the league level parallel to the youth revolution of the US national team. Head coach Vlatko Andonovsky’s qualifying roster announced Monday it is confirmation of that transfer, with 10 players aged 25 or younger. This represents a huge change for the Americans: the United States was the oldest team in the two previous World Cups. It was such a clear change of approach that it was perhaps more surprising to see a veteran player like Megan Rapinoe making the list than a young player like Rodman, who has only made three games.
To the extent that the NFL serves as a major development ground for the US national team, it seems likely that this trend will continue. After all, with the way NWSL freshmen have thrived so far this year, the pool of American players is likely to get much younger.