Unlevel pitch: The path to professional soccer is tougher for girls than boys

Julianna Palacios, 13, hopes to play professional soccer one day and become a member of the U.S. national team. But for girls, the path to that goal has challenges not seen in the U.S. boys soccer system. (Photo by Taiwo Adeshigbin/Cronkite News)

Carter Jackson would sign a professional contract as a minor. Playing the game he loves in a big stadium in front of cheering fans would be a “win-win,” he says. (Photo by Taiwo Adeshigbin/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – As early as age 4, Julianna Palacios’ speed and savvy footwork made her a standout on her co-ed soccer team. She was similar in size to her peers, but there was no way to miss the short, curly haired girl who darted past her mostly male opponents.

Even after a bad touch, Julianna could still beat the boys to the ball, her former coach Daniel Espinoza said.

“She’s so good, she could probably still keep up with the boys – even though they have testosterone, all those changes – the sad part is, nobody goes to boys games to recruit girls,” Espinoza said.

Her talent doesn’t mean Julianna, now 13, will find similar opportunities to play professional soccer and sign a professional contract as a minor, like her male counterparts. Although boys of any age can sign to play professionally under Major League Soccer rules in the U.S., the National Women’s Soccer League requires players to be at least 17 before signing a contract.

“If they’re going to give the opportunities, they need to give them to the people that are working the hardest, not based on how old you are,” said Julianna’s mother, Summer Palacios.

Instead of keeping Julianna on a co-ed team, her parents sought a competitive girls club team, Real Salt Lake-AZ, that would increase the striker’s exposure to recruiters and develop her skills.

Espinoza agreed that Julianna’s next step was to compete against girls bigger and faster so that she could hone her individual skills, and build an understanding of what it’s like playing alongside other high-caliber players.

Julianna Palacios says her transition from a mostly boys co-ed team to Real Salt Lake-AZ is helping hone her skills and increase her exposure to scouts. (Photo by Taiwo Adeshigbin/Cronkite News)

Julianna said joining a competitive club team puts her one step closer to the goal: to play professionally and join the U.S. national team, like her role model and goal scorer, Alex Morgan.

When the striker joined Real SL-AZ, the team had an academy program with a direct link to the Utah Royals FC of the NWSL. But that pro team folded in December 2020.

“Now I know that I can get somewhere straight from my club,” she said. Other academy programs exist, helping to increase a girl’s exposure among the professional teams.

For Julianna and other youth players, the path to sign as a minor doesn’t exist yet.

Earlier this year, the family of Olivia Moultrie of Wilsonville, Oregon, who now is 16, sued the NWSL in federal district court to end the league’s so-called age rule and allow her to sign a professional contract.

Krystle Delgado, a lawyer and owner of Delgado Entertainment firm, said Moultrie’s case was reviewed by the federal court because anticompetition laws are in question.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the status of the Moultries’ lawsuit against the NWSL. An agreement in that suit was reached in August. The story here has been corrected, but clients who used previous versions are asked to run the correction found here.

In May, the court issued a 14-day temporary restraining order so Moultrie’s case could be heard. Moultrie was granted a temporary age restriction lift. At 15, she signed a three-year contract with the Portland Thorns this summer and made her debut on July 2. In August, both parties came to a legal agreement: the NWSL would grant Moultrie the right to play, but has not agreed to changing the age limit for other girls.

The NWSL is the only pathway to play professional soccer in the states. The United Soccer League, a professional Division II league, will launch in 2023, and the semi professional USL W League will kick off in May 2022.

Boys soccer has three well-established leagues without an age restriction – Major League Soccer, United Soccer League, and USL League One. The U.S. soccer system also gives youth boys increased visibility, through its MLS NEXT league, an elite player development system.

MLS launched its U.S. boys academy program in 2007, which now has 30 soccer academies. And NWSL followed in 2017, announcing nine professional clubs would join the academy system.

Carter Jackson, 14, came to love soccer as a toddler watching his older brother play, but it wasn’t until two years ago that he announced his dream of playing professionally, said his father, Sekou Jackson.

The defender now plays for Real Salt Lake-AZ soccer club, which competes in the MLS NEXT league. Real Salt Lake-AZ also has a boy’s academy team in Utah to develop players in a professional environment while giving them a close link to the MLS team, Real Salt Lake.

“Right now, my goal is to hopefully – after my first season of playing in the MLS NEXT – try to get into the academy at Utah for RSL,” Carter said.

Carter Jackson, 14, competes in the competitive MLS Next League and hopes to receive an invitation to the Real Salt Lake Academy in Utah – a pathway to playing professionally. (Photo by Taiwo Adeshigbin/Cronkite News)

The 14-year-old’s commitment to soccer and playing at the highest level is already evident in his disciplined routine – fueling himself with the necessary nutrients, performing additional workout and recovery sessions, and regularly watching professional matches – and his commitment to his team.

“Soccer is a place of joy for my son, it’s like self-care for him,” Sekou said.

If Carter were to receive an academy invite, the transition would present challenges – being away from his family, starting a new school and living on his own. His father believes the academy not only will develop a player’s skills, it will prepare the player for life. If Carter got the chance to sign a professional contract as a minor, Sekou said, he’s in full support.

“At the start (of the academy), I’ll miss my family, but I’m playing the game I love, so it’ll be worth it,” Carter said.

Espinoza, who is the RSL-AZ West boys director, said the RSL Academy usually identifies players at age 11 or 12, and once of high school age, if good enough, they will be offered a spot. These players may also attend training stints with the Utah professional soccer teams.

Becky Hogan, the athletic director of RSL Academy High School, which most of the academy boys attend, said students don’t have in-person classes on Friday, allowing them to travel for competitions.

“If you’re not recruited into the academy, we are still having people come here to try and be a part of the school,” Hogan said. “Just that peripheral involvement, sometimes you can get identified or be a part of the academy setup.”

As Carter works to get invited to the academy, Sekou said he doesn’t want his son to lose sight of what’s most important.

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“I want to make sure he stays a kid as long as possible, so he’s just having fun with it,” Sekou said.

Espinoza said youth soccer in the U.S. is making progress, but it still has some ways to go. He said he has seen boys signing professional contracts in other countries as early as 12.

“If these players are the best players on their team at 16, that’s a problem, they cannot be the best players at that young age,” Espinoza said, adding that young players should be playing older people in a more competitive environment to help them reach their potential.

Julianna is up for that challenge, he said.

“The sky’s the limit for Julianna, but it just depends how far she wants to go,” Espinoza said.

Julianna’s mother said her daughter puts a lot of pressure on herself, but there’s no question soccer is fun and a real passion. Even off the pitch, the 13-year-old enjoys soccer-themed birthday parties, playing FIFA video games and watching soccer matches with her dad.

Julianna said her mom’s support has helped her keep pushing — encouraging her to run extra laps and just believing in her.

“It means enough to my daughter that I support her, and we’re going to support her in whatever she wants to do,” Summer said.

Taiwo Adeshigbin tie-whoa ah-day-shig-bin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Taiwo Adeshigbin expects to graduate in December 2021 with a master’s in sports journalism. Adeshigbin also is a physical therapist who works as a sports injury journalist with Phoenix Spine and Joint and hosts a podcast.