Trinity Rodman wasn't the first player to leave college before playing a single game in favor of playing professionally, nor will she be the youngest to join the league. And that absence of firsts is what makes 19-year-old Rodman going second overall to the Washington Spirit in the 2021 NWSL College Draft so significant.
Natalie Weiner wrote an article on Sarah Fuller last year about trailblazers and what comes next – or, rather, what doesn't. "The false optimism of these milestones," she wrote, "obscures the fact that years and years of them have not made it easier for those who follow."
When Lindsey Horan chose to sign overseas rather than play collegiately, it made a not-insignificant splash in the American women's soccer landscape. After Horan returned to the states, it felt like it took a couple years (and an NWSL MVP title) for commentators to stop bringing up how she skipped college to go pro every time Horan touched the ball.
This is to say that Horan playing for PSG instead of UNC was a huge first step in expanding the entrances to professional women's soccer for US players, but it didn't say all that much about the state of the NWSL.
It was another thing when Mal Pugh decided to forego her college eligibility to join the Washington Spirit at the age of 19. When you earn your first cap with the senior USWNT as a 17-year-old and you're touted as the face of U.S. Soccer's next generation of players, people shouldn't exactly be surprised if you choose to bypass a couple years at UCLA in favor of earning a national team contract.
Not only that, though: Pugh decided that the NWSL was the best way to further her career. (Granted, this was as the whole USWNT-players-must-play-in-the-NWSL-instead-of-going-abroad thing was dying down, but Crystal Dunn had already made the move to Chelsea before Pugh went pro.) Pugh's choice to play domestically was a show of her belief in the NWSL: that it was a sustainable league and a space that could help her grow (even if she landed with the Jim Gabarra-era Spirit and didn't get the coaching that she needed to immediately realize that goal).
When Ellie Carpenter made her Portland Thorns debut just days after she turned 18, it was also huge. She was the youngest player to take the field for the NWSL, of course, but she also had years of experience with the Australian Women's National Team under her belt; Carpenter – and the AFC – both felt like professional American soccer was an arena where she could develop as a player.
Similar fanfare surrounded Tierna Davidson foregoing her senior year of to join the Chicago Red Stars and Sophia Smith leaving halfway through her sophomore year to be drafted to the Thorns.
So, Trinity Rodman's age is noteworthy, certainly, but she isn't a trailblazer in any of those ways.
She's also not Pugh, Carpenter, or Davidson in that she didn't grow up in senior national team camps. Smith had just finished her first full USWNT training camp the day before she went first in the 2020 draft.
And while a second overall draft pick can probably expect to see a decent amount of field time, Rodman doesn't view a starting position as a given.
"I'm not going in thinking I'm going to start or I'm going to play every minute," she said in the mixed zone. "I'm going in thinking I'm going to learn every single minute that I'm there."
I think Rodman is a very good player, but my favorite part of her being drafted this year is that she didn't make her senior national team debut at 15. She's simply a young player who's very good at soccer and knows it, and she knows she can succeed in this league.
When no one's talking about people who are building on those firsts, Weiner wrote, "the barriers might be broken but there is no supportive, inclusive infrastructure to replace them." Rodman shows that there's a pathway for young players to join the NWSL. It may not be as newsworthy as a woman playing for a major college football team, for example, but it's significant in its own right in that professional women's soccer has struggled to gain a foothold for so long in this country.
"I know I'm at a point right now where I could be at that [professional] level to get even better than I would be in college," Rodman said, "so I was like, Let's just go. I want to get better, let's just go."
While the NWSL still has work to do – and while US Soccer has an enormous amount of restructuring ahead of them if they want to make soccer a truly equitable sport – it's comforting to see that those entrances to the NWSL are already expanding. In the same month that Catarina Macario chose to go to Europe rather than play domestically and the year after Jessie Fleming did the same, we're seeing young talent commit to this league – a symbol of longevity, stability, and future growth.
(Photo: Trinity Rodman virtual media availability)