It was the 27th minute of Racing Louisville's home game against league-leaders San Diego Wave FC last month, and Jaelin Howell and Savannah DeMelo were standing over the ball for a free kick about 25 yards from goal. They sized up their options for how to beat Wave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, arguably the best shot-stopper in the National Women's Soccer League.
Howell ran over the ball as a decoy, forcing the Wave's defenders to move slightly from their set positions. DeMelo followed right behind her, striking a shot toward Sheridan, who stared into a vivid Kentucky sunset more fitting of a San Diego summer night. The ball cleared the five-player wall and Sheridan could only get a fingertip on it as it flew into the top corner. The goal was a stunner -- it was DeMelo's first as a professional and the game-winner in a 1-0 finish -- but it was more than just a new milestone for a top American prospect who battled injuries throughout college. It was a sequence symbolic of a unique trend playing out in the NWSL this season: Rookies are playing a bigger role in buoying their NWSL teams than ever before.
League expansion, which means more roster spots available, along with temporary NCAA rule changes to account for the COVID-19 pandemic, has created an influx of rookie talent immediately stepping into prominent roles in numbers previously unseen in the NWSL's previous nine seasons. Howell and DeMelo were the second and fourth picks, respectively, in the NWSL college draft in December, with both quickly becoming starting central midfielders for Racing Louisville.
"I think the rookie year is a hard year, and I just want to take as much as I can learn from the older players, whether that be playing the No. 6, the No. 8, the No. 10 or out on the wing," DeMelo said after making May's NWSL Team of the Month. "I'm just trying to do all I can to help this team, and I wouldn't be getting the accolades without the rest of my team. So as much as it's an accolade for me, it's also to my team I can thank."
For years, both DeMelo and Howell have been tabbed as future U.S. national team stars, with Howell already earning call-ups. They may be superlative talents who are part of Racing Louisville's rebuild, but they are also just two of many rookies who are important starters or role-players for their teams.
Look at forwards Diana Ordoñez and Elyse Bennett, selected sixth and seventh overall by the North Carolina Courage and Kansas City Current, respectively. They each grasped hold of prominent roles quickly, scoring crucial, result-changing goals for their teams early in the season.
Bennett registered two multi-assist games in the Challenge Cup and continues to change games off the bench -- like on May 14, when she came off the bench with a half-hour to play to tally a goal and an assist -- and in starting roles. Ordoñez has three goals in all competitions this season, including the game-winner in the Challenge Cup semifinal and a gutsy goal inside the six-yard box, against the run of play, to help the Courage grab a point on the road in Houston at the end of May.
No. 1 overall pick Naomi Girma has played every minute at center-back for San Diego thus far this season and after an injury to Tierna Davidson, she could be starting in that role for the U.S. during World Cup qualifying in July. No player has more recoveries in the NWSL this season (97 in nine games, 12 more than anyone else) than Girma, according to TruMedia. (Girma also landed at No. 11 on ESPN's list of the best players aged 21 and under.)
First-round picks of generational talent should more easily adapt to the professional game, but the depth of this NWSL rookie class sets it apart from prior years.
Historically, the NWSL is a difficult place for rookies to quickly settle. It is a physical, transitional league long anchored by almost the entire United States national team pool. Most No. 1 picks have enjoyed long careers, but typically only a handful of rookies step into serious game time from opening day. This year, that number is well over a dozen -- and they are 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 a playmaking forward. Late-round picks Olivia Van der Jagt of OL Reign and Jenna Winebrenner of Kansas City are among those from the 2022 draft thrust into occasional starting roles.
The uniqueness brought on by the pandemic also created a unique situation for the league.
College players, even if selected by a team in the 2021 draft, had the ability to play a fifth season in fall 2021 thanks to an NCAA provision accounting for the pandemic. Many players selected played in the NWSL last year, including top picks Emily Fox (Louisville) and Trinity Rodman (the Washington Spirit), who were among those few who seamlessly integrated into the league. Some players, however, took advantage of the additional eligibility and deferred their professional careers, making this their rookie season.
Portland Thorns midfielder Sam Coffey is arguably the most impressive of the bunch who deferred. Coffey was a second-round pick in 2021, but stayed an extra season at Penn State. She stepped into a talented Thorns midfield this year and held down the No. 6 role from day one, sweeping in front of the back line and taking on primary responsibilities like corner kicks, from which the Thorns have directly generated goals. Coffey was just named to the U.S. national team's roster for June friendlies against Colombia and narrowly missed out on the 23-player World Cup-qualifying roster despite having never previously been called up by the senior national team.
Fellow 2021 second-round picks Mikayla Cluff (née Colohan) and Kelsey Turnbow are also key midfield cogs for their teams in their first months as professionals. The Orlando Pride is a better team with Cluff's dynamic runs and quick decision-making higher up on the field, while Turnbow is often the leader of San Diego's suffocating high press. Amirah Ali (San Diego) and Alex Loera (Kansas City), who was the 36th of 40 draft picks last year, could be the steals of that draft.
This shift is playing out at a league level parallel to the U.S. national team's youth revolution. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski's qualifying roster announced on Monday is confirmation of that transition, with 10 players aged 25 or younger. This marks a huge change for the Americans: The U.S. was the oldest team at the previous two World Cups. It has been such a clear change in approach that it was perhaps more surprising to see a veteran like Megan Rapinoe make the roster than for a young player like Rodman, with only three caps.
To the extent that the NWSL serves as a key development ground for the U.S. national team, this trend appears likely to continue. After all, with the way rookies have thrived in the NWSL thus far this year, that pool of American players will likely only get younger.