When a young player enters the professional level, observers project his or her future international career while hoping that the development pathway pans out. Some talents reach those imagined heights at a rapid pace or take a little longer to climb the mountain, but others never quite make good on early promise. Olivia Moultrie has been a newsworthy subject for several years, beginning with her legal fight to enter the National Women’s Soccer League. The 18-year-old Portland Thorns midfielder is three years into her career and recently made the jump to the United States Women’s National Team.
Raised in California, Moultrie competed with Total Futbol Academy, So Cal Blues, and Beach FC, being described as “a complete package” due to her “hunger to win and desire to always improve.” At the age of 11, she committed to the powerful University of North Carolina program, an offer that would ultimately be abnegated. There were also extended training sessions with Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern Munich; however, a European move was less feasible due to “prohibitive FIFA policies.” With the intention of turning professional, she joined the Portland Thorns Academy in 2019 and played up several age groups, appearing with the first team in a friendly against the U.S. U-23 team.
Most observers of American soccer are familiar with the ensuing story that caused significant hand-wringing and legal maneuvering. Moultrie inked an endorsement deal with Nike but was prevented from signing with the NWSL club until the age of 18, merely allowed to train with the first team and appear in friendlies. She then filed an antitrust lawsuit and was granted a preliminary injunction in May of 2021, with the District Court of Oregon ruling that “the balance of equities and the public interest strongly favor affording girls in the United States the same opportunities as boys.” The league crafted a discovery process, which saw her rights selected by OL Reign, who then traded her to the Thorns.
After signing a three-year deal, Moultrie made her professional debut as a substitute in a 2-0 victory over Racing Louisville. The first season ended with nine appearances and an assist against the Washington Spirit as the club claimed the NWSL Shield. Additionally, her free kick helped secure a victory in the Women’s International Champions Cup.
In 2022, Moultrie scored her debut professional goal in a 4-0 win over the Houston Dash, becoming the youngest goalscorer in league history. She appeared in 20 league and cup matches while contributing three goals and four assists, also entering the NWSL Championship match as a substitute to see out the win. During the ensuing victory parade, the teenager informed the crowd that “going to court was worth it.”
“It was such a cool moment — just jitters the whole time,” Moultrie told Business Insider. “Like, I’m 17 and we just won a championship. And I get to do it and try for it and work for it so many more times. I got one and now I can try to get six more kind of thing. So it was a really cool, pretty good start.”
Last year, Moultrie made 28 league and cup appearances, contributing two goals and four assists. In light of her continued strong performances, the Thorns exercised her contract option for the 2024 season. Her play earned a second-consecutive nomination for Young Player of the Year from U.S. Soccer, which coincided with a promotion at the international level.
Moultrie has been a regular with the United States program, beginning with the U-15 group. She was a member of the U-20 squad that won the 2022 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship and started all three matches at the ensuing U-20 World Cup. Her first senior call-up came this fall against Colombia, followed by a 29-minute debut in the first China friendly and a 31-minute appearance in the second fixture.
The coaching staff was impressed with Moultrie’s performance. “I think she went in and occupied spaces really well,” said interim manager Twila Kilgore. “I felt like we could have found her more, and when we did find her, I thought she was very good in combination and looking to play forward, tried some things, we asked her to be brave. She was brave. And I thought she was great at looking to regain the ball right away when other people lost the ball... She’s earned this and she did an incredible job going in and playing on both sides of the ball.”
Standing 5’7”, Moultrie is a central midfielder who makes an impact in the final third with chance creation. In addition to serving as an adept shuttler, she puts in effort on the defensive side of the ball by taking down opposing dribblers. American Soccer Analysis praises her as possessing “an almost otherworldly vision to create shots and get her teammates into the box” without suffering from frivolous turnovers. Her devastating long-distance shooting is an asset that can shift match proceedings on a dime.
“As someone who generally plays in central midfield, in areas in the middle third, she needs to be able to provide a lot of subtle value that will add up over time for her to be impactful game to game,” said Om Arvid in a series of breakdowns on his YouTube channel. “Think about the kind of outlet she can be in offensive transition given her ability to just take the ball out of the air, dodge pressure, and then get play moving. Her teammates would feel safe just punting the ball into her area even though she’s not a physical domineering player… She just uses her body really well, coupled with technical ability that just allows her to immediately take control of kind of chaotic situations and then get the play moving, which makes her a key outlet in offensive transition.”
What a move, Olivia Moultrie pic.twitter.com/5SSEzrjgo8— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 6, 2023
The USWNT is in a transitional period, attempting to inject the program with some new blood and jump-start a youth movement. Moultrie made her debut with the senior squad and performed at a high level, looking likely to merit inclusion at the SheBelieves Cup and perhaps next summer’s Olympic Games. She has long been considered to have a ceiling that could reach world class, which is a burden for any developing prospect attempting to spin nebulous potential into on-field production. However, the teenager continues to perform and surpass every expectation, benefitting both her club and county.