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The 15-year-old Portland Thorns player made her debut last weekend, but is it for the best?

PMG FILE PHOTO - Wade EvansonI don't have the answer, but something about this doesn't feel right.

Olivia Moultrie made her NWSL debut this past Sunday night in a 2-0 Portland Thorns win over Racing Louisville. She entered the game in the 83rd minute, had a handful of touches and looked the part.

Moultrie waited two years to get on the pitch since turning professional more than two years ago — when she was 13.

Moultrie's tale, while uncommon, is not unprecedented. Over the last 80 years, there are numerous examples of teenagers making their way into the professional ranks. From 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall, who in 1944 pitched for the Cincinnati Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals, to countless hockey players like Wayne Gretzky, tennis phenoms like Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis, golfers like Michelle Wie and Ty Tryon, and men's soccer's Matthew Briggs and Freddy Adu, all brought extreme youth to their sports' highest ranks, and all to various degrees of success.

Gretzky became his sport's greatest. Nuxhall had a 16-year career in the big leagues and made two all-star teams. And Hingis won five grand slam singles titles and more than $25 million on the court over a 23-year career.

But Capriati had her share of off-the-court drama, Adu never amounted to the star he was predicted to be when he signed a contract with the MLS's DC United at the age of 14, and Tryon struggled mightily for a handful of years as a golf professional after qualifying for the PGA Tour at the age of 16.

So, it can be hit-or-miss. But physical capability doesn't always equate to mental preparedness, and that's what concerns me when it comes to talents like Moultrie.

Professional sports are not for the faint of heart. Careers are on the line, as is money, and you'll find no orange wedges or sno-cones in the postgame huddle. These are adults playing an adult version of the kids game they left behind when they signed on the contractual line. They travel, eat out, work with the media, deal with injury, and do all with the wisdom provided them through high school, college and some semblance of a professional career — none of which Moultrie has had the benefit of.

In 2019, when she became the youngest American soccer player to turn pro at the age of 13, her stardom had been preordained. She began training at the age of four, by the fifth grade was being homeschooled so as to focus on soccer, and at the ripe old age of 11 accepted a scholarship offer to play at the University of North Carolina, one of college soccer's historically elite programs. Two years later, she announced her intentions of turning professional, signed a six-figure endorsement deal with Nike, and began legal proceedings against the NWSL to allow her to play despite falling well short of the league's age requirement of 18.

She's since received a temporary restraining order allowing her to play, and last Sunday night — Independence Day — she took her first steps on a professional field of play and kick-started what I hope will be a hall-of-fame soccer career.

But while I hope for the best, I still worry about Moultrie and other young professional athletes like her.

Most 15-year-olds are incapable of playing the professional game, and many more are ill-equipped to deal with what comes with it off the field. Moultrie appears to be the exception regarding the former, but the latter has yet to be determined. That feels like a gamble that may not be worth it.

Yes, she'll make a lot of money. Yes, she'll be famous. But at what cost? That I can't answer, but I'll be rooting for the best.


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