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SSFC Spotlight: Jenna Nighswonger enjoys fantastic rookie year

The 23-year-old switched positions, won NWSL Rookie of the Year, and made her senior international debut.

Soccer: International Friendly Women’s Soccer-China at USA Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The United States Women’s National Team closed out a down year with two friendly victories over China. While neither result was altogether convincing, multiple players made their respective senior international debuts and could take on bigger roles with the program in the near future. Jenna Nighswonger opened her professional career by switching positions, beginning a rapid rise that saw her end the year with multiple individual awards, a league title, and her first senior cap. The 23-year-old NJ/NY Gotham FC defender appears to be a key piece of the program’s next generation.

Born in Huntington Beach, California, Nighswonger played for Huntington Beach High School, finishing as runners-up in the state championship while claiming a lengthy list of invidual honors. On the club side, she competed with national power Slammers FC, winning two Elite Club National League championships and a U.S. Soccer Development Academy title. Coaches praised her excellent “soccer IQ and technical ability,” thriving at the attacking midfielder position. In addition to competing with the Olympic Development Program, Top Drawer Soccer rated the Florida State signing as a five-star recruit.

In her first year with the Seminoles, Nighswonger featured in 23 matches, starting 20 while contributing five goals and five assists, quickly “proving herself as one of the top contributors on the team”; additionally, her summer-league club, LA Galaxy OC, claimed the United Women’s Soccer championship. During the following COVID-shortened season, she came off of the bench in 15 out of 16 games but garnered All-ACC Third Team, ACC All-Tournament Team, and College Cup All-Tournament Team honors en route to reaching the championship match. In 2021, her three goals and eight assists helped Florida State get over the hump to win the national title. During her fourth and ultimately final collegiate season, the talented attacker found the back of the net six times and added 16 helpers, being named a First Team All-American by multiple publications, winning United Soccer Coaches Scholar Player of the Year, and finishing as a runner-up in MAC Hermann Award voting.

Nighswonger thrived at Florida State, noting defensive improvement due to a constant focus on development. “She came in as a really good, attacking player, really good at creating and scoring goals,” said former Seminoles head coach Mark Krikorian. “The area where she’s made the most progress is becoming a two-way player and working hard on the defending side, picking up second balls. I think she’s a much more complete player today because she’s added those elements to her game.... She’s just continuing to work at her game and get better and better. She’s got a great attitude, development and mentality. She’s studying the game and trying to learn, and she’s always in looking at video and stuff like that.”

Eschewing a fifth year of eligibility, Nighswonger moved into the professional ranks but was initially “leaning more towards going somewhere in Europe.” However, she registered for the 2023 NWSL Draft and was selected by NJ/NY Gotham FC with the fourth overall pick. The club signed her to a three-year contract, describing her as an “extremely intelligent and skillful player” who already possessed a “professional mindset.”

Lining up at left wing-back, Nighswonger’s first professional season went about as well as could be imagined. She made 29 appearances across all competitions, contributing five goals and two assists as the Goths claimed the club’s first title since 2009. The league named her Rookie of the Month twice, in May and July, as well as to the Challenge Cup All-Tournament Team, honors which were followed by the Rookie of the Year trophy.

Nighswonger pointed to the welcoming environment and veteran teammates who helped her through the transition to the professional game and a positional change in the season opener. “It was crazy, I had only been playing left back for maybe a week in practice and I think you could see the fear in my eyes as I was going in because I was so nervous,” she shared with The Equalizer. “It’s been such a long season and I still have so much to learn at the left back position, but it’s been fun to learn a new position, learn under my coaches, and learn from my teammates like Bruninha, Ali Krieger, Kristen Edmonds, and Kelley O’Hara.”

At the international level, Nighswonger competed with almost every age group of the national team program, including with the U-17 team at the age of 14. She was a member of the U-20 squad that won the 2020 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship. Her senior international debut came during the most-recent camp, playing in both matches against China and expressing gratitude for the opportunity to “be surrounded by such great teammates.”

Nighswonger is a versatile talent who can play on any line, having earned praise for her hard work on both sides of the game and “wonderful creative flair,” while noting her best qualities as “technical [ability] and good vision.” Last season, she excelled at bringing down opposing dribblers while also constantly pushing forward into the final third. Total Soccer Analysis describes her “composure on the ball, fortitude in tight areas, and ability to retain possession when under sustained pressure from opponents,” using body control and intelligent movement to keep control.

While taking on a new position is a challenge, the switch to fullback appears to have been more of a reframing of her existing talents in an increasingly fluid and positionless sport. “I think I do see myself more as an attacking mid player but I am now a left back,” said Nighswonger. “I think just taking what I used to do in the attack and use my vision just to play a new position. We talk a lot about how it’s just a role on the field and we try to do a lot of different rotations and things so I don’t really feel like I’m just a left back, which I like. Sometimes I can play the 10, the 11. I think that’s definitely been helpful... I think the hardest part in that area is just understanding, defensively, the tactics and everything.”

Nighswonger has successfully navigated every jump in her career, rising from the youth level through the college game and into the professional and senior international ranks. Next comes the challenge of following up on and improving upon her sensational Rookie of the Year campaign, continuing to develop and grow while avoiding plateaus. She has the talent to be more than a one-year wonder, and there is plenty of available playing time with the USWNT should her solid performances continue.