Lyon’s five-year stranglehold on the UEFA Women’s Champions League ended when Barcelona beat Chelsea 4-0 in the final this season, but the French club still have hope for the future in young star Catarina Macario.
The women’s game is reaching new levels and new audiences in 2021. Whether it’s Manchester City star Sam Mewis topping ESPN’s 50 best female players, or the United States women’s team continuing to dominate on the international stage, diversity in the sport has never been more important.
Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland walked away with the No. 1 spot in ESPN’s list of male players, but who makes the grade as the best female talent aged 21 or under?
Picking the list for its first year is ESPN editor Kathleen McNamee with the help of Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has worked as a scout and executive for clubs across Europe (including the men’s teams at Monaco, Zenit and Watford) and contributed the strengths and areas to improve for the top 10.
From an initial list of 30 players, those remaining are the ones who best satisfied our main criteria: appearances at the highest level, consistent performance over the past season and possessing the potential to develop into a top level footballer.
Is there a reason attacking players dominate the list?
In general, forwards get more playing time at a younger age than, say, central defenders, who tend to need more time to develop tactical awareness, positioning and understanding of the game.
– Players included must be age 21 or under on June 1. The top 10 have been ranked, with the rest listed in alphabetical order.
– Positions are: GK (goalkeeper), DEF (defender), MID (midfielder), FW (forward), ST (striker)
The Top 10
10. Trinity Rodman, FW
Club: Washington Spirit
Country: United States
Washington Spirit’s decision to pick the daughter of NBA legend Dennis Rodman at No. 2 in the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) draft made her the youngest player to ever enter the league. After missing her first college year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard to know what to expect from the 19-year-old. Any questions were answered, however, when she scored with her first touch after coming on as a 58th minute substitute in Spirit’s Challenge Cup game against North Carolina Courage in April.
While she has yet to receive a senior United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) call-up, one can’t be far off. She’s already impressed with the U-17 and U-20 teams, including scoring nine goals in the 2020 CONCACAF Championship. “She’s been doing a good job of that and she wants to learn, that’s a big factor for her. She has an attitude that she wants to work hard to be able to do that, which is great,” U-20 coach Laura Harvey said. “She’s someone who’s got very high potential within our group, that’s for sure.”
Strengths and areas to improve: While her speed and ability to outmuscle full-backs draws attention, Rodman is a fine overall footballer. She’s able to use both feet and can also operate through the middle, while her tenacity and good timing often see her regain possession high up the pitch. She can become even more confident on her left foot, especially when it comes to finishing.
9. Sandy Baltimore, FW
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
When England met France in April, there was one player who rose above the rest. Baltimore’s effortless ball control and passing was only topped by her stunning 32nd minute goal, which was curled into the top corner in the manner of her stylistic inspirations Ronaldinho and Neymar.
Despite it only being her sixth cap, the 21-year-old’s experience of over 50 appearances with Paris Saint-Germain was clear to see. A member of the France U-19 side that won the 2019 UEFA European Championship, her eyes will be set on making Corinne Diacre’s squad for the delayed Euro 2021 finals in England next summer.
Strengths and areas to improve: An exceptionally tricky wide midfielder, quick on the break and almost impossible to catch, she is brilliant in one-on-one situations. Off the ball, she’s particularly hard to pick up when making late runs to the back post, often resulting in a tap-in. She also possesses a strong left-footed strike and is able to score from distance. Yet she can sometimes be a bit too eager to get to the finishing phase, causing her to overrun the ball or pull the trigger too quickly.
8. Ellie Roebuck, GK
Club: Manchester City
Winner of the inaugural Women’s Super League (WSL) Golden Glove in 2019-20, Roebuck continued her standout form this season and just missed out on retaining the award after finishing the campaign with 10 clean sheets — one less than Chelsea’s Ann Katrin-Berger.
The 21-year-old has been a revelation for City after claiming the No. 1 jersey following an injury to England legend Karen Bardsley. From taking her school exam in biology in the British Embassy in Minsk while competing at the U-17 European Championships for England to earning seven senior caps, Roebuck is undoubtedly leading the charge of a new exciting wave of goalkeepers who are benefitting from their modern training methods — as well as a lot of skill — from a young age.
Strengths and areas to improve: A brave goalkeeper with excellent reactions, she has the fundamental skills to develop into a top-class player. Her agility and reflexes make her able to respond to rebounds and make double saves in a flash. She reads the game well with a high level of attention, is good with her feet and tries to build from back whenever possible, keeping tentative long balls to a minimum. Her development and decision making with improve with playing more games.
7. Lauren James, FW
Club: Manchester United
While injury hampered part of James’ 2020-21 season, the 19-year-old’s contribution to Manchester United’s rise from Championship side to contenders for Europe (top three) in the WSL can’t be underestimated. She is the club’s second top goal scorer — second only to Ella Toone — with 28 in 56 appearances and was the first United player to score goals in the Championship, WSL, FA Cup and in their debut at Old Trafford.
She secured her first call-up to the senior England team in November and it was a surprise when she missed out on an appearance in the April international window. Her injury issues this season undoubtedly influenced Hege Riise’s decision but with reports that Chelsea are ready to come knocking for the youngster, you’d have to think she won’t be out of the loop for long.
Strengths and areas to improve: Equipped with neat close control and two good feet, James has the ability to dribble past opponents with one or two touches. An intelligent footballer who picks up smart positions, she also has a fine shot and quality in decisive situations. As she gains more playing time, James will look to make a more of a consistent impact throughout the game.
6. Sophia Smith, FW
Club: Portland Thorns FC
Country: United States
When Smith was drafted by the Portland Thorns as the No. 1 pick in 2020, she made history as the first teenager to be drafted into the league. Her rookie season may not have unfolded as she imagined due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we had to wait until the Fall Series to see the Stanford graduate. That patience was repaid, though, when she scored a stunning header within moments of coming on against the Utah Royals.
Her USWNT debut followed in November against Netherlands when she became the first player born in the 2000s to appear for the U.S. She leads the NWSL for shots on target this season and has two goals to her name, leading the tally with icons of the game Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. If she keeps up her level of performance, she may book her seat to Tokyo’s Olympics.
Strengths and areas to improve: A tremendously talented forward, she is right footed, yet so comfortable with her “weaker” foot that she can play on either side of the attack and still cause the same damage when cutting infield. Technically skilled, she is a delight to watch when effortlessly sliding past opponents and is a brilliant finisher too. Already so far ahead of her age group when it comes to game understanding and tactical awareness that it’s hard to pinpoint shortcomings in her game.
5. Lauren Hemp, FW
Club: Manchester City
Our reaction in pulling together this list was: “Wait, Hemp is only 20?!” It’s been five years since she made her debut in the WSL and in that time she’s twice won the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Women’s Young Player of the Year, competed at the U-20 World Cup with England — securing a bronze medal — and won the FA Cup. While injury hampered the start of this season, she was consistently one of Manchester City’s bright sparks as they pushed Chelsea right to the wire for the title.
Her talent was best on display against Emma Hayes’ side in April, when she scored and nearly bagged an equaliser in the dying moments. Even when City lost 3-0 to eventual Champions League winners Barcelona in the quarterfinals, she was by far the side’s best player on the pitch. Few can match her in one-on-one situations.
Strengths and areas to improve: Usually deployed as a left winger, Hemp is excellent at taking on defenders and delivering precise crosses. Her off-the-ball movement and relentless willingness to make runs behind the opposing full-back are just as impressive. Not just quick over the first yards, she can keep going for long sprints. As her right foot keeps developing, she will become an even more flexible attacking option.
4. Jordyn Huitema, FW
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
When you come from Canada and score your first international goal — quickly followed by a second — at the age of 15, it’s hardly surprising that you’ll be compared to the legendary Christine Sinclair. While replicating the career of the world’s all-time international goal scorer is no mean feat, Huitema has been forging a successful path of her own. (Her boyfriend Alphonso Davies of Bayern also made the men’s list.)
In 2017, she became the first player to score for Canada’s U-17, U-20 and senior team in a single year. Her decision to forego college and sign a professional contract with Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 has seen her become her country’s top scorer in the Champions League and she is on the brink of breaking Lyon’s hold over the Division 1 Feminine. Distinguishable for her strength on the field, stylistic comparisons to Sinclair look like they might be right.
Strengths and areas to improve: A first-class athlete with the size, strength and aerial ability to settle as a top-class centre-forward (she’s being moved around in a variety of positions, mainly featuring as a right winger). In addition, her pace makes her a threat on the break as well as playing off the shoulders of the centre-backs. Technically sound and a brilliant finisher at youth level, she still needs to find the composure in front of goal to translate her goal scoring talents into senior level.
3. Ellie Carpenter, DEF
Ahead of the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, this group of Matildas have been dubbed a “Golden Generation” and leading the charge for that title has been Lyon’s Carpenter. While her reputation back home and in the United States has been growing for the last five years, the ease at which she slotted into the Lyon side caught the attention of European fans.
Tasked with filling the boots of FIFA’s The Best winner Lucy Bronze, she has shown that she can defend against Europe’s best as well as finding herself up the other end of the pitch occasionally for a goal. Her absence was keenly felt during Australia’s April internationals in which they were roundly beaten by both Germany and Netherlands. A COVID-19 outbreak at Lyon prevented her from travelling but cemented her importance to Tony Gustavsson’s side if they hope to succeed at the Olympics and World Cup.
Strengths and areas to improve: An energetic, athletic full-back who resembles an Olympic sprinter when she charges down the right-hand side. Talented on the ball for a defender, she plays with her heart on her sleeve and enjoys the physical side of the game. However, due to her attacking style she can leave herself exposed defensively and has to learn how to balance out her attacking and defensive game a bit more.
2. Lena Oberdorf, MID
In a recent interview with ESPN, Lyon and Germany star Dzsenifer Marozsan was asked which player would be the future of German football and she didn’t hesitate before stating: “Lena Oberdorf.” Such is Oberdorf’s stock, she’s already considered a key player within Martina Voss Tecklenburg’s side after first appearing at the 2019 World Cup.
Her route to becoming one of the most-respected young players in Europe started with fifth-tier boy’s side TSG Sprockhovel and has brought her — via Essen — to Wolfsburg where she is a Champions League runner-up. Her U-17 Championship win in 2017 was only sweetened by her being named the tournament’s best player. Voss Tecklenburg has commended Oberdorf’s “physical presence” at such a young age and Oberdorf herself has said that playing multiple positions on the pitch at youth level has given her the edge over her competition.
Strengths and areas to improve: A wonderfully gifted footballer who’s equally comfortable in the centre of midfield or as a centre-back, she sets the tempo of the game. Oberdorf plays with an incredible ease, never seems in a hurry and has clear idea of the situation when she receives the ball. A strategical player, she is good on the ball, is adept at winning it back, and excels at both short and long passes. With her technical ability and power in her feet, you’d like her to test the goalkeeper from distance even more than she does.
1. Catarina Macario, FW
Country: United States
This isn’t the first time Macario has topped an ESPN “Player to Watch” list. In 2017 when she was with Stanford, ESPNW voted her as their Player of the Year with the idea that she could succeed Brazil legend Marta as one of the world’s greatest footballers. Four years later, she’s continued to impress on those early predictions.
After formally declaring for the USWNT in October, the Brazil-born forward was immediately called into the squad. She further shook the world of U.S. soccer when she declined to enter the NWSL draft and instead joined European giants Lyon. While the club’s overall season didn’t go the way they wanted, her risk at taking herself to France has paid off as she’s racked up four goals in her last four games to quickly become a fan favourite.
Ada Hegerberg’s return from fitness may give her some competition up front but the two-time Hermann Trophy winner will be up for the challenge. Look out for her name on Vlatko Andonovski’s Tokyo teamsheet.
Strengths and areas to improve: While Macario is turning into a fine team player, she also possesses amazing individual skills and can create opportunities on her own with her incredible dribbling skills, tricks and feints. Aside from her natural fitness, power and athleticism, she has the most advanced finishing techniques at her disposal: volleys, half-volleys, shooting on the turn. Excellent in the air and an increasingly impressive provider as well, while she’ll inevitably turn into a more refined footballer at Lyon, you don’t want her to lose her natural edge either.