13-year-old prodigy Mckenna Whitham aiming to make NWSL before finishing high school

There aren’t many things Mckenna Whitham can’t do on a soccer field.

She’s fast. She can shoot. She can dribble. She can pass.

“She has a skill set that is different,” her father, Josh, says. “She doesn’t have a flaw in her game.”

She’s also just 13.

At an age when most kids are preparing for high school, Mckenna Whitham is preparing to turn pro in the world’s most popular sport. She’s already the youngest person to sign a name, image and likeness contract with Nike and the youngest to play for an NWSL club. In that February preseason game, Whitham, a non-roster invitee with Gotham FC, scored the game’s only goal in stoppage time, making her the youngest player to score for an NWSL team.

For Mckenna high school isn’t a necessity, it’s a detour.

“My thoughts haven’t really been high school or anything. I’ve always wanted to go pro, like right away,” she said. “And I’ve been working really hard to get there.”

Kennedy Fuller is already there and the midfielder, who signed with Angel City three days before her 17th birthday last March, said her advice to Whitham would be to be patient — not always an easy thing for a 13-year-old.

“It’s super important that she thinks about putting herself in the best environment possible,” said Fuller, who took a red-eye back to Texas for her high school graduation hours after playing the final 28 minutes of her team’s scoreless draw with the San Diego Wave last week. “Whether that’s playing up a couple of years, whether that’s playing with boys, whether that’s playing with professional training, professional teams, whatever that may be.

“Putting herself in the best environment possible is what’s going to eventually help her be the best version of herself.”

Whitham, who goes by Mak, is already doing much of that. By playing with the U.S. U-15 team, she’s playing up a couple of years and she’s been training with LAFC’s boys’ academy team. And on Wednesday she’s expected to make her debut with the Santa Clarita Blue Heat, a highly regarded summer pro-am club whose alumni include World Cup veterans Savannah DeMelo, Alyssa Thompson, Lauren Sesselmann and Ashley Sanchez and reigning NWSL rookie of the year Jenna Nighswonger.

That Whitman can even dream the dream of becoming a professional before finishing high school — a dream Kennedy and a handful of others are already living — is a relatively new development. Until 2021, NWSL required women to be at least 18 to play in the league.

That was news to Olivia Moultrie and her family. At 13, the same age Whitham is now, Moultrie, now 18, signed with the Wasserman Media Group, U.S. soccer’s most powerful agency, then accepted a multiyear endorsement deal with Nike and an offer to train with the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, moving with her parents and two younger sisters to Oregon for what she thought would be the start of a professional career.

When the league told her she’d have to wait five years to play in an official match, she sued and the courts eventually agreed that the NWSL was in violation of antitrust rules. So ahead of the 2022 NWSL season, new commissioner Jessica Berman pushed through a mechanism for signing players under 18, opening the door not just for Moultrie, but for other rising stars such as Chloe Ricketts, Melanie Barcenas and Jaedyn Shaw. Angel City has three teenagers in addition to Fuller: forwards Alyssa Thompson, 19, and Casey Phair, 16 and defender Gisele Thompson, 18.

“It’s incredibly important that we have a domestic pathway for those special players that want to take the next step,” said Jill Ellis, who coached the U.S. women’s team to two World Cup titles before becoming president of the San Diego Wave. “It was a rarity a few years ago to have teenagers in the pro ranks. To see the evolution and opportunities now for our best young talent is exciting.”

Which brings us back to the Whithams, who moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California last summer because the soccer opportunities, such as the chance to play with the Blue Heat and with Slammers FC, an elite youth program in Orange County, were better for Mak. Her father , a senior vice president for a global staffing firm, can work remotely, freeing him to ferry his daughter to games and practices. Her mother, Joni, homeschools her daughter, which helps keep her schedule flexible.

“My job is to make sure that as long as she’s having fun, and if she wants to do it, that she has the opportunity to do it. Then it’s up to her to prove herself,” Josh Whitham said.

“All I care about is that she’s following her dreams and that she wants to do it. My goal is just to be here to support her.”

Josh Whitham said he doesn’t push his daughter to train. The motivation comes from her.

“She runs her entire schedule, including her homeschooling,” he said. “She learned a big organizational thing that most adults struggle with.”

Josh Whitham knows a little bit about the challenges of being a precocious athlete. At 15, he was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic ski team, ranking as high as 40th in the world and making the roster for the 1998 Nagano Olympics as an alternate before he was out of high school.

“We have those conversations,” he said. “But my job is shifting to more of an advisor and just to make sure I’m here to talk about anything. [The] experiences she’s living right now, you can never replace those no matter what you do. In regular life you cannot replace going to Europe, being with the teams, having the interaction with these players.

“We do worry about those things. All I care is that she’s following her dreams and we’ll be here to support her. And if that [dream] changes, then it changes.”

Right now that dream is to sign a professional contract. Barcenas became the young player in NWSL history when she signed with the Wave last season at 15 years 138 days. Whitham, who has continued to train with Gotham, the reigning NWSL champion, as well as NWSL clubs in Kansas City and Washington, won’t turn 15 for another 14 months.

“As of now, we’ve committed to riding out this the way it is and finishing out the year,” Josh Whitham said. “She wants to sign. It’s just a matter of time and where the best developmental situation is.”

Time, certainly, is on their side.

“This,” Josh Whitham agreed “is a long road.”

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the “Corner of the Galaxy” podcast.

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