This story appears in the June 3-10, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
A steady drizzle fell on Portland on the evening of March 27. By six o’clock traffic had snarled. It wasn’t much of a night for a preseason soccer friendly—still, some 2,000 diehards ventured out to watch the local pro women’s team take on the U.S.’s U-23 squad.
The first half proved uneventful. The Portland Thorns were missing Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan, both senior national team stars. As the second half began, a new player came on for the Thorns. Unlisted in the program and smaller than most of her peers, number 42 wore bright red cleats and a high bun. Appearing tentative, she lost the ball a few times, won it back once and came off early to huddle with trainers, thoroughly gassed. Which made sense. After all, she was only 13.
Thirteen is when most girls go through seventh grade. When puberty arrives, with its blooms of acne and social anxiety. When the world begins to feel incredibly small. In the case of Olivia Moultrie, it’s also when she signed a six-figure deal with Nike, becoming the youngest pro women’s soccer player in the history of such things, moving with her family to Portland to train with the Thorns, the dominant franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League.
No precedent exists. Horan and Mallory Pugh (another national teamer) skipped college to go pro, but they were both 18 and came up through youth leagues. Olivia did not. By seven she had a personal coach. At 10 she became the youngest girl ever to train full-time with boys in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy; at 11, the youngest to accept a scholarship offer, from powerhouse North Carolina. Her parents, K.C. and Jessica, installed a turf field in their backyard and homeschooled Olivia so she could train eight hours a day. K.C. tagged social media posts about his daughter #witness and last September, The New York Times quoted him saying, “I tell her all the time, ‘Nobody cares that you’re the best at 12. If you’re not the best at 17 or 18, nobody’s going to care.’”
Now, as Olivia’s age-group peers catch rides to tournaments and muddle through middle school, she wears a GPS tracker and practices with the likes of Canadian striker Christine Sinclair, who at 35 is nearly triple her age. Nine Thorns players will suit up at the women’s World Cup; Olivia hopes to join them in four years. She’s already more famous than some of them. She appeared in a Nike ad during this year’s Oscars and, according to her dad, is regularly stopped for autographs. She has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, where one of her videos ends, “I’m not talented. I’m obsessed.”
If you’ve already begun forming an opinion here, you’re not alone. Most people have, for Olivia’s story overlaps with so many broader conversations, from the madness of youth sports to the future of women’s soccer, from gender equity to the never-ending (and ever-subjective) debate about how we should raise our kids and who gets to tell us how to do it.
Where you come down on these issues, and what Olivia’s groundbreaking path might mean—well, that depends on your perspective.
“Look mate, we understand how this can appear,” says Gavin Wilkinson. It’s 10 a.m. on a recent weekday, and the 45-year-old general manager of the Thorns and MLS’s Timbers has been on the phone trying to wrangle the arrival of Brian Fernandez, from Liga MX in Mexico. A former New Zealand national team defender himself, Wilkinson fires off emails at a standing desk and offers kombucha on tap.
He’s in a unique position. When the NWSL launched in 2013, it endeavored to avoid the mistakes of the two previous pro women’s leagues—poor management, meager investment, lack of a holistic plan. So far, results have been mixed. Average NWSL attendance recently surpassed 6,000 for the first time. Still, some teams play in high school stadiums to sparse crowds. Last summer news stories detailed depressing conditions at the New Jersey–based Sky Blue FC. Port-a-potties for locker rooms. Players cleaning their own jerseys. Unreimbursed medical bills. This is the “professional” world Carli Lloyd returned to after her World Cup heroics.
The Thorns are outliers. Under owner Merritt Paulson they operate in concert with the Timbers, sharing training facilities, resources and Providence Park, which just saw an $85 million renovation. Portland wins (two NWSL titles), draws fans (17,000, on average) and turns the league’s largest profit. Paulson treats the franchise as both a business and a passion. A Harvard M.B.A. whose father was secretary of the treasury under George W. Bush, he is a regular, involved presence at the team’s facility, trailed by his dog, Diego. He understands that the Thorns’ success is tied to the health of the league, and women’s soccer at large, so it’s in their interest to help domestic competitors. Meanwhile, they worry about overseas threats. The women’s teams of Atlético Madrid and Barcelona drew 60,000 fans for a recent game. Clubs such as Olympique Lyon, in France, offer salaries dwarfing the NWSL’s $46,200 max; last year the Thorns lost two players to Europe. The U.S. has long held women’s soccer preeminence, but that’s changing.
All of which, Wilkinson contends, is important context to consider before you judge his team for taking on a 13-year-old. Yes, it can sound bizarre once you start drawing analogies. Imagine the Warriors inviting a seventh-grade Steph Curry to train at every practice. But maybe, Wilkinson suggests, this is a necessary experiment. “It’s about changing the perception of the sport,” he says. “We don’t need to change the perception of the national team—every young girl aspires to be part of that. But there needs to be a stepping stone.” Besides, he says, “There aren’t too many out there like Olivia.”
So, how good is she? That’s the first question most people ask. And few are better judges of soccer talent than North Carolina women’s coach Anson Dorrance, who’s won 21 NCAA titles and coached 59 future national teamers, including Heath and Mia Hamm.
Dorrance first heard of Olivia in 2017, when she was 11. A coach in California called, said Anson had to see this crazy-good girl. In time he would learn her backstory: how Jessica had been a defender for South Carolina and K.C. had played basketball for NAIA Montana State Northern. How they raised three daughters in Canyon Country, Calif., chronicling vacations and first days of school on a family blog. How in their firstborn they saw glimpses of greatness. (“All of a sudden she is dominating,” Jessica blogged when Olivia was 5. “She has figured out how to be competitive and sweet!”) How Olivia started playing against boys. How K.C. left his job in pharmaceuticals to focus on Olivia’s development.
At first, though, all Dorrance knew was that she was “ridiculously young.” Then he watched her at a camp and saw a girl with a preternatural ability to control the ball, read space and create scoring opportunities. Someone who could probably already make his college team. “A little technical and tactical wizard!” says Dorrance, who believed Olivia had the potential to be “Tobin Heath–esque.” So he offered her a scholarship, even knowing, as he says, “we’d be excoriated at every turn.” She accepted. (And he was right.)
The potential payoff was worth it, even if it would be years before Dorrance knew for sure. That’s the thing about banking on a preteen. “You never know what her final athletic platform is going to look like,” says Dorrance. “She still has to traverse puberty.”
Think back to 13. Did you have a life plan? A passion?
In 2012, Horan gave up her own UNC offer to play for Paris Saint-Germain. She says she’d do it again—“absolutely”—but she was also 18 at the time. Would she have been ready to face pros at 13?
“Hell, no. At that age, there’s no way I was ready.”
She’s not alone. “How would I have fared?” wonders Horan’s U.S. teammate Megan Rapinoe. “Terrible! I wouldn’t have fared, period. I wasn’t, physically, anywhere near being able to keep up.” Rapinoe wishes Olivia well. She’s rooting for her. But: “I don’t think she’s anywhere near the level to be on or train with a professional team. I don’t think we’re at a position in women’s soccer to have the systems and structures set up to facilitate the growth of such a young player in the professional environment.”
Abby Wambach, 38, who scored more international goals for the U.S. than any other man or woman, developed faster than most. Still, she says, “I wasn’t ready at that age.” Then again, she understands the world is changing. “Who am I to say, ‘If I were Olivia, I would go to college’? It’s not my place to judge. It’s my place to create as many opportunities as possible and welcome any unique ways in which players can find their way.”
For the Moultries, college was always the plan. Until Olivia kept improving. The U-14 national team called. Nike and Adidas sent free gear. Spencer Wadsworth, the agent who reps Heath and Horan at Wasserman Media Group, reached out. He’d seen Moultrie’s clips on YouTube—the ones little girls now mimic, of Olivia with the ball magnetized to her feet, launching benders—and so he met with the Moultries. He invited Olivia to pickup games in Playa Vista with Stu Holden and Steve Nash. Like Dorrance, Wadsworth saw a tiny Tobin Heath. And he was all in, despite her age. “My boss thought I was crazy,” says Wadsworth. “I was like, You have to see her play, see her mentality. We can push the limits.”
So they did. With Wadsworth’s help, a 12-year-old Olivia spent a week apiece training at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Lyon and PSG, all clubs that offered the prospect of good money and a first-team debut by 16. That is, if Olivia proved eligible. FIFA stipulates that an international player be 18, unless his or her family can prove they moved for reasons unrelated to soccer. Jessica runs an essential-oils business. They could set up anywhere. It might work. . . . Still, it was a risk.
Another option: the Thorns. Wilkinson and Wadsworth had been talking for a year. Olivia visited and met Portland’s staff, each side evaluating the other. The NWSL, though, presented its own downside. Technically, Olivia couldn’t play or be paid until she was 18. But she could train with some of the world’s best, work out with the Timbers’ youth teams and play in friendlies and development academy games.
In February 2019, Olivia gave up her Tar Heels scholarship and college eligibility. She signed a deal with Wasserman and soon after became the youngest female team athlete inked by Nike. According to sources with knowledge of the arrangement, it is an incentive-laden, multiyear contract that includes guaranteed money and could earn Moultrie millions. (Nike declined to comment.) As such, it passes Dorrance’s test: “I tell girls that if they give up a scholarship, which is worth about $300,000, they need to have an option that is worth more.”
The announcement made national news. The Thorns and Wadsworth fielded a deluge of interview requests, from GMA to CNN, and turned them down, instructing the Moultries not to speak to the press (they did not make Olivia available for this story), even as the Nike deal and the historic (and public) nature of the Thorns partnership thrust them squarely into the public eye.
For every Michael Phelps and Tara Lipinski, world champions as teens, there exist many more young athletes like Freddy Adu, a soccer phenom who fell short of outsized expectations. Other times the path veers sharply. Marv Marinovich raised his son to be the perfect QB; instead, Todd was out of the NFL by 23, struggling for years with addiction.
None of this is simple cause-and-effect, of course. Every life is messy, complicated. Regardless, once the bar is set, it tends to stay there. “Extraordinary achievement, though adults have rarely cared to admit it, takes a toll,” writes Ann Hulbert in Off the Charts, her book about child prodigies. “It demands an intensity that rarely makes kids conventionally popular or socially comfortable.” Such talent can also prove impossible to manage. “Prodigies offer reminders writ large that children, in the end, flout our best and worst intentions.”
Few can relate to Olivia’s situation as well as Michelle Wie, who in 2000, at age 10, became the youngest golfer to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. “I didn’t feel like I was 10,” Wie says. “I was brave, confident.” Two years later she qualified for her first LPGA event and, with much fanfare, began competing against men. At 15 she turned pro, signing a Nike deal. Since then, Wie has won only one major and struggled with injuries. She prefers not to generalize but does offer one bit of advice to Olivia: “The thing my parents did extremely well was keep everything as normal as possible. Golf was almost secondary.” For Wie that meant private school and, later, college. (She graduated from Stanford.) “I wanted to be a professional, but they realized there was a whole other side to me as a child. You have to be a well-rounded person.”
She pauses. “As much as sports seem like everything, they aren’t.”
It’s a warm spring afternoon and the Thorns are practicing at a 24,000-square-foot facility in Beaverton, Ore., near Nike headquarters. Pine and fir trees ring two immaculate fields. Beyond, two-story houses sprout satellite dishes. Swoosh logos are prevalent.
On one pitch players ping a ball to a teammate, get it back, then make a run to beat a defender. It takes a minute to notice Olivia. She blends in for the most part: quick, agile, intense, forever hunched. Tall for 13—she’s 5' 4"—if smaller than an adult. She passes to Sinclair, who’s close to breaking Wambach’s international goals record. “Yeah, Sinc!” Olivia chirps, the same as her teammates.
It’s all a bit surreal. Consider the Warriors analogy and what this must be like for Sinclair. Hey, KD: Today you’re paired with the seventh-grader.
When the Thorns begin a scrimmage, Olivia sits out. It’s not that she can’t hold her own, coach Mark Parsons later explains—“she’s an absolute Energizer bunny who wants to train eight hours a day”—but that the team is doing its best to adjust pro periodization schedules to a 13-year-old. “There’s no blueprint for this.”
It’s been a lot of trial and error. “Week one she came in like a spitfire. It was like, This 13-year-old is middle of the pack! Then, week two”—Parsons makes a whoosh noise—“she was clinging for dear life.” So the team adjusted her load. “And, boom, week three she was back up.”
Initially the Thorns planned out five weeks for Olivia, then eight. Now they’re at six months. A color-coded team schedule includes an OM tab plotting Olivia’s daily itinerary: practices with the Thorns, games with the U-17 team and so on, with mandatory rest periods, which she hates. The team dedicated one assistant, Rich Gunney, to monitor Olivia and meet with her weekly. She sits with Parsons monthly. Wilkinson huddles with Olivia’s parents every month or two.
In other ways Olivia is treated the same as everyone else. Like all Thorns she wears a GPS tracker during practices and games. Three cameras film her every move in training. Wilkinson can track hydration levels (down to urine density), maximum speed, total distance. . . . Players have begun wearing sensors in their shorts, for monitoring muscle firing and fatigue.
For now, Olivia is with the team but not of the team. The fact that she can play only in friendlies and preseason games is a point of contention. Wadsworth suggests that no hard-and-fast league rule exists, noting that Adu played at 14 in MLS. NWSL president Amanda Duffy says, though, “Through our college draft rules and foreign player limits, we do have age restrictions. It’s 18 at the moment.” But she allows this could change. “We recognize the situation in Portland accelerates the conversation, but we want to make sure we have the right environments for players”—reading between the lines: not like Sky Blue FC—“if we’re going to start bringing in minors.” It will be interesting to see how it plays out. Some around the Thorns and the Moultries believe she’ll be ready and able to play by 14.
For now, she lives a compartmentalized life. She wakes up, eats a healthy breakfast (her parents limit sugar) and gets in an hour of work on a 50×30-yard backyard turf field. (The Moultries also put in a half-court hoops blacktop for their middle daughter.) Next: schoolwork for a few hours at the kitchen table or her desk, the curriculum set by an independent-study teacher. (Report cards are sent to the team.) By lunch she’s at the facility, eating with Thorns players. She sits in on meetings, goes through practice and, if the team lets her, stays after to do extra work. Then: home, shower and head to one of her sisters’ soccer or basketball practices, or maybe work on free kicks for an hour. As for the diversions that consume most 13-year-olds, K.C. says Olivia mainly steers clear. She might watch TV while doing her homework, but mostly she consumes highlights or games. Her social media feed is soccercentric.
Interactions with teammates are limited outside of training, though Horan says she took Olivia out for coffee once. “I told her to text me if she wanted to get away from her dad or whatever. Then I realized she doesn’t drink coffee, so maybe I brought her to the wrong place.” Like most, Horan praises Olivia’s maturity and focus. “She’s very confident—not in a bad way, but to be open and have fun. At 13, I was the shyest individual and would never want to step on anyone’s toes or be annoying. People can take it how they want. But certain things about her I think are so cool, because I wish I had that [confidence] at a young age.”
Anyone who’s shepherded a daughter through youth soccer is familiar with the evolution. At first girls run wildly, clumping around the ball, giggling and taking careful note of any passing dogs. (Or maybe that’s just my kids.) For the most part, dads or moms do the coaching. Dandelions and Bumblebees are popular team names, and the postgame snack is of utmost importance. Cartwheels are rampant.
Next: The game takes shape. Passes connect. Faster and bigger kids start to dominate. Wow, it actually looks like soccer out there! Parent-coaches get more serious, or maybe real instructors come in. The best players gravitate to travel teams. Fall through spring, the game provides a steady drumbeat; one practice a week becomes two. Pressure builds to up commitments, to go year-round and choose soccer over other sports.
Show enough potential and a kid ends up trying out for a program like the Thorns’ Development Academy, now in its fourth year. There are analogs all over, a jumble of acronyms—ECNL, ODP—with feeder systems and promises of college showcases, where kids end up in front of someone like Mike Smith, the Thorns’ academy director. A fit man with nervy energy, intense eyes and short, gelled hair, Smith asks girls in his opening talk: How many hours per week do you spend with a ball?
Five, some say. Eight. And so on.
If it really takes 10,000 hours to master something, Smith asks, how many hours do you think that is, from kindergarten to high school senior? As the girls (and parents) fight through the math, Smith answers. Sixteen. And this, he tells them, is the key to success: internal motivation.
For Olivia, that’s not an issue. Not now. She’s an anomaly, though. The vast majority of girls are more like the seventh-grade daughter of a friend of mine in Portland. She plays soccer and basketball and runs track. She considered trying out for the Development Academy until she learned she’d have to give up hoops. Her father emailed: Couldn’t she do both? The response: Not really; it’s a serious commitment.
It’s no surprise that kids and parents feel an urgency, heightened by watching the ascent of someone like Olivia. “It’s comical,” says a parent of one of Moultrie’s U-17 teammates. “There’s this FOMO. Should I be doing this with my kids? How can we get them there?”
Holly Pierce played professionally and now coaches girls in Portland. “Parents ask me about it,” she says. “ ‘Should I be paying for a private coach? Should I build a field in my backyard?’ ” She pauses. “Or they’re looking for me to tell them Olivia’s parents are crazy.” What’s missing, Pierce says, is a focus on the fun. “I almost feel bad for kids who are earmarked so young.” Wambach agrees, adding that playing high school hoops made her better at soccer, not to mention happier. “We’re making it harder,” she says, “for our kids to become fully well-rounded athletes or a fully well-rounded human beings as adults.”
Then there are the odds. “Ninety-nine percent of kids are not going to be at that level, so what does that do to them?” asks Rapinoe “Are you just setting them up for failure? I have so many parents asking, ‘What can I do to get my kid on the national team?’ And this sounds so mean, but I’m like, ‘Your kid is 14 and clearly not going to play on the national team. Not ever.’ There are 25 women, out of jillions of girls, on the national team. It’s not like you’ve failed if you didn’t make it.” Her voice rises. “It’s just selfish of these parents. Have a bit of self-awareness and just allow your child to play. There are so many kids out there who are disappointed or feel like they failed. And that’s bulls---.”
The experience is consuming. Elite teams run year-round, require constant travel and can cost as much as $10,000 a year. The justification is the prized college scholarship, but in reality, many are only partial. Over a decade, parents may end up spending more than it’s worth.
Even then, the path forward in the sport is murky. A list of professions that pay more than women’s soccer would include, well, most professions. The minimum NWSL salary is $16,538. The max is $46,200, but most fall well short of that. The elite few who also make the U.S. national team can earn up to $170,000 or so. That rises for the fortunate handful who, like Olivia, find their way onto the payroll of a Nike or Adidas.
The rest are like Thorns midfielder Celeste Boureille, who discovered soccer at 11, played at Cal and then took an unpaid gig on the Thorns’ training team. That isn’t unusual. Because the supply of talented women’s players vastly outstrips demand, and NWSL budgets are threadbare, Portland regularly trains players who aren’t on its roster, in hopes they might develop. (This is essentially what the team is doing with Olivia.) Some prospects stay for years, working as travel agents or teachers on the side.
When Boureille arrived she stayed with a host family in the suburbs. She walked 30 minutes every day to the train, then rode 45 minutes and walked to practice. Eventually, the Thorns offered a roster spot. Elated, she moved into a team apartment, gained access to a shared car and received an entry-level salary—not a living wage but enough to pay the bills. In the offseason she plays in Australia, bringing her annual total earnings to roughly $35,000. For women’s soccer, this qualifies as a success story. It’s also why Olivia’s situation is so unusual and, to some, controversial.
Then again, it wouldn’t be if she were a boy. Then she’d be compared to Alphonso Davies, who played for the Vancouver Whitecaps at 15. Or Michael Owen, who at 12 was courted by the top teams in England, where this type of thing is commonplace. She’d be looking at the MLS minimum of $70,250, so the scholarship question would be moot. If she were a boy, says Pierce, “We’d be like, He’s amazing!”
But she’s not, which means that every step is more difficult and comes with more scrutiny.
What about the parents? That’s the other unavoidable question with Olivia, even though, really, it’s not specific to the Moultries. They’re just stand-ins for our feelings about when and how to support—or push—our kids. When to make our desires theirs, and vice versa.
“I can only assume her parents are making the best decisions for her,” says Wambach.
“People have opinions,” says Parsons, “but that’s not your business. That’s their business.”
“I hope she did this on her own,” says Horan. “I hope parents look at this and know it’s a path and an opportunity, but not to force it.”
Back around Portland, on an unseasonably scorching spring day, soccer parents huddle along the shady sideline of a U-17 Thorns Academy game. Olivia is starting at the number 10 position; she’s the primary offensive playmaker. She is vocal, confident. Early on she beats a defender and drills a shot from 25 yards that goes just high off the crossbar, eliciting oohs from the crowd.
Later she uses a series of ball fakes to beat the same girl—older, larger, tasked with marking the prodigy—and breaks into space. Before Olivia can play a through ball, though, the girl takes her down from behind, a professional foul. Olivia pops up, pissed. “Leave it!” says the ref, sprinting over and showing the tackler a yellow card. Academy coach Laura Schott is pleased. “I love that competitive fire!”
Olivia sends a handful of nice balls down the wing and, in the second half, bends a free kick around the wall from 25 yards as the goalie stands frozen. Her third goal in four games is a thing of beauty. Professional-level. But she also flags in the final 15 minutes of each half, her motor slowing. In these moments she transforms back into a kid, tired and hot, watching the world go by, looking like she’d love to jump into a pool.
Near one end line, back from the action, sit K.C. and Jessica, joined intermittently by their two younger daughters. As parents, they defy some expectations. They are neither loud nor overbearing, which can’t be said for one parent—grandparent? uncle?—who spends much of the game at the midline, hollering, berating and generally making an ass of himself.
K.C. wears Nike shorts, a Nike shirt and a Nike hat. He’s built like a point guard 10 years removed from the game. He’s talkative and passionate, whapping my shoulder to make his points. He says he’s heard it all. He’s been compared to Richard Williams and LaVar Ball, which he hates. This isn’t about him, he says. If Olivia were a boy, no one would care about her dad. He’d love for critics to spend a day with his daughter and see how much she loves this, how dedicated she is to her goal. They’d understand that this is her dream, not his. That she isn’t going to open any floodgates, because there’s no one like her. That it’s a matter of when, not if, she becomes the best player in the world.
“In a perfect world, this is going to be this huge win-win for everybody,” K.C. says. “But she still has to keep improving and prove she can help the team win—not just that she’s the best decision maker or the best technical player. For us, all eyes are on the prize. If she becomes what she wants, then all that matters is that we put her in the best position to succeed. Ultimately, when she steps on the field, that’s all Liv.”
In the months and years to come, the ripples from Olivia’s decision will fan out. Maybe they’ll turn into waves. Maybe they’ll dissipate. Parsons and the Thorns have planned out 12 months “with the binoculars.” Beyond that? It’s entirely possible Moultrie will never play for Portland. Parsons and Wilkinson are O.K. with this. They view this project as many things: a branding opportunity, a pitch to future talent, a publicity push, a broadside against the European teams and an important test case. Says Parsons, “We’re going to learn a lot.”
That’s a soccer conversation, though. Listening to everyone weigh in on Moultrie, one can’t help but wonder about the rest of it, like how (and if) this will impact larger ideas about girls, boys and sports. About the value we place on excellence and the cost it incurs. About the tension between what is human—to dream, to be a kid doing cartwheels, to be a good parent, to instill the values that undergird team sports—and the power of external expectations and corporate franchises competing on a global stage. Olivia might say she has a dream, but she’s also a brand.
On this day she’s still 13 and hot and tired. Her game ends tied 2–2. Later she and K.C. will watch the film together, freeze-framing as they go.
Meanwhile, I debrief with my daughters, 10 and 12, and two friends who came along to watch. All of them play soccer, though not in the way Olivia does. Still, they are fascinated by her. You can have a real job at 13?! She plays against Tobin Heath?! She gets free Nike stuff?!
They’re also a bit disappointed by the game. Maybe they expected Olivia to score nine goals or bury a volley from midfield. Maybe they thought it would all be so obvious, a blinking light above her head announcing her awesomeness. But, of course, it wasn’t. It was just a soccer game. And it turned out Olivia’s not superhuman. She’s just a girl.
Like them, but different.