NCAA Division I women's soccer kicks off its 42nd season on Thursday.
The new college season starts three days before the end of the 2023 Women's World Cup, where an unprecedented 137 players with NCAA experience at 76 different schools represented 21 different national teams.
England should start three former college players in Sunday's final against Spain: Lucy Bronze
and Alessia Russo
(both North Carolina) and Rachel Daly
But times are changing.
Smaller foreign national teams will continue to turn to dual nationals to stock their rosters, but the days when all or almost all USWNT players have attended college are over. The same for youth stars like Bronze, Russo and Daly leaving England to enroll in U.S. programs.
The women's pro game, in the NWSL and Europe, has grown a lot in the 5-10 years.
Three players on the USA's 2023 World Cup squad — the most ever — did not play college soccer: Lindsey Horan
, Trinity Rodman
and Alyssa Thompson
Horan was the pioneer, turning pro out of high school in Colorado in 2012, rejecting an offer from North Carolina to sign with Paris St. Germain.
Rodman turned pro with the Washington Spirit in 2021 when Covid-19 forced the postponement of the fall 2020 college season.
Thompson was first high schooler to be drafted by an NWSL team when she was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft. Instead of starting her first college season this weekend with Stanford, she is playing for Angel City FC.
Almost all the young stars in the USWNT program did not play college soccer or turned pro with one or more years of eligibility remaining.
The injured Mallory Pugh
enrolled at UCLA but never played for the Bruins before turning pro in 2017. Catarina Macario
, who also missed the World Cup due to a knee injury, played three seasons at Stanford, one more than Sophia Smith
did on The Farm. Michelle Cooper
, the 2022 MAC Hermann Trophy winner and top player on the 2022 U.S. U-20s, turned pro after two seasons at Duke.
The biggest impact on college soccer will be the NWSL’s new U-18 entry mechanism, which was formalized in January and allows teams to directly sign teenagers to pro contracts, bypassing college as well as the draft.
The North Carolina Courage recently signed 17-year-old midfielder Riley Jackson
, a Duke commit, to a guaranteed contract through the 2025 NWSL season. In March, the San Diego Wave signed 15-year-old Melanie Barcenas
, the youngest player ever to reach a deal in the NWSL. That followed the Washington Spirit’s signing of 15-year-old Chloe Ricketts
These moves wouldn't have happened five years ago. But the NWSL teams offer much better salaries and better benefits now, thanks to the first collective bargaining agreement. Many NWSL teams are better organized on the sporting side, capable of integrating prospective pros into training and handling the first steps of these young pros' careers. And there are greater endorsement opportunities for young female stars, whether that's from shoe manufacturers or brands, like we saw with Thompson, Smith and Rodman in commercials during the World Cup.
The other incentive for NWSL teams: sign these young players or risk losing them to foreign teams.
Like Macario, who signed with Lyon out of Stanford, Notre Dame All-American Korbin Albert
moved to France, signing with Paris St. Germain in January after her sophomore season with the Irish. Onyeka Gamero
(middle), one of the top rising seniors in the country, has already signed with Barcelona.
The 2023 college season is marked-up change: the start of a massive realignment of NCAA Division I conferences and a large number of stars who have switched schools.
Realignment. The conferences most affected are the Big 12 (which adds BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF), AAC (Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA) and Conference USA (Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston).
UTSA, the 2022 Conference USA champion, and BYU and UCF, at-large selections from the WCC and AAC, all participated in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
In 2024, there will be even more changes, including the move of 2022 NCAA Division I women's champion UCLA from the decimated Pac-12 to the Big Ten along with another multiple NCAA Division I women's champion in USC.
Transfers. Change will also come in the form of transfers, increasingly common in the post-pandemic era.
The biggest name is Croix Bethune, a first-team All-American as a junior at USC. She has moved to Georgia along with Trojan teammate Croix Bethune to play for former USC head coach Keidane McAlpine.
Other top transfers are 2022 Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year Leah Freeman, who left Oregon for Duke, Rebecca Cooke, who led the NCAA in goals in 2022 with 22 at Quinnipiac and moved to Penn State, and Taylor Huff, an All-SEC midfielder at Tennessee who has joined former Vols coach Brian Pensky at Florida State.
A few others to note: former U.S. U-20 defender Ayo Oke (Cal to defending champion UCLA), U.S. U-20 goalkeeper Mia Justus (Florida State to Texas) and Big Ten standout Rowan Lapi (Northwestern to Penn State).
Thursday, Game to watch:
Penn State vs. North Carolina
• The reigning Big Ten champion vs. 2022 runner-up in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions welcome back seven starters to go along with Cooke and Lapi. The Tar Heels return nine starters from College Cup final, plus get back Maycee Bell, injured in the 2022 season opener.
Croix Bethune Photo: Amanda Loman/ISI Photos