Gotham FC’s 13-year-old trainee Mak Whitham is scoring goals and readying to go pro

McKenna Whitham scored against Deportivo Cali in added time at the Women’s Cup in Colombia in February, finding her footing in a sea of defenders and tucking the ball away to send Gotham FC to the finals of the four-day preseason tournament.

The goal was the 13-year-old’s first in a professional environment, and it came after weeks of preseason training with the NWSL defending champions. Whitham, who goes by Mak, was unfazed.

“It’s just been spectacular,” she told The Athletic following her preseason debut. “I’ve always kind of been playing up at a high level, so I’ve just been motivated to be the best and just give 100% effort, and, I mean, just because they’re older, it doesn’t scare me.”

The teen has made a name for herself already, garnering headlines for being the youngest women’s soccer player to sign an NIL deal with Nike. In doing so, she joined a roster filled with well-established college stars, like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, and followed the path forged by Angel City’s Alyssa and Gisele Thompson, who in 2022 became the first high schoolers to sign an NIL deal with the sportswear giant.


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Whitham continued training with Gotham as the team prepared for its 2024 season and, on the eve of the Challenge Cup, was back at Red Bull Arena. Dressed in the team’s warm-up kit, she trained alongside her veteran teammates, joining World Cup winner Esther Gonzalez in a drill. Whitham’s passes were clean, with lots of power behind them. When coaches stopped a drill to instruct her, she quickly adjusted.

Whitham was one of three under-18, non-roster invitees asked to join the team for preseason training, which kicked off at IMG Academy in Florida in February and continued in Colombia for the Women’s Cup. Though she practiced with the team ahead of the Challenge Cup, she was in the stands for Gotham’s 1-0 defeat by San Diego Wave.

Whitham, however, was with Gotham during the postgame ceremony and though Whitham did not travel to Gotham’s season opener in Portland, she rejoined the team again this month. A Gotham FC spokesperson confirmed to The Athletic Whitham has since continued with the team as a training player.

A Gotham FC spokesperson told The Athletic ahead of the Challenge Cup that Whitham was welcome to join the team for training. At that time, the team had 25 active players and one player on an excused absence. With veteran forward Midge Purce suffering a season-ending ACL injury last week, the team can call up a player in her absence.

Ever since a young Olivia Moultrie forced her way onto the pitch in 2021, a youth movement has been underway in the league. It gained more steam last year when the league introduced a U-18 entry mechanism, creating a structured path for young players who want to go pro.

Though Whitham has not yet publicly signed with an NWSL team, her preseason debut with Gotham signals her potential to become one of the youngest players to sign a professional contract in the U.S. That distinction currently belongs to Melanie Barcenas, who last year signed with San Diego Wave at 15 years and 138 days old.

“There’s so many great teams out there and so many young players as well,” Whitham said. “But I have the thought and the mindset to just be the best and, like, try amazing things and just break all the records and goals. I’ve always just wanted that.”

Whitham has joined Gotham FC in preseason and in training. (Gotham FC)

Whitham, who turns 14 on July 27, is homeschooled and part of the Class of 2028. The California native plays for Slammers FC HB Køge, a competitive club in the southern part of the state, and is a member of the U.S. Under-15 youth national team. Whitham has trained with NWSL clubs, including Gotham, the Kansas City Current and Washington Spirit. She was also recently invited to train with LAFC MLS Next’s 2010 Boys Academy team.

Yael Averbuch West, Gotham’s general manager and head of soccer operations, said the club had set its eyes on Whitham when it began keeping tabs on promising young players after the U-18 entry rule was established.

“‘Mak’ is a name that had been on our radar and brought up to us previously,” she said. “Approaching preseason, we recognized that we had the opportunity for players who are not currently on contract with our team to come in with our group so that we could evaluate them and see them in our environment.”

The club knew Whitham had been in the preseason with other clubs, Averbuch West said, meaning she had some experience in the professional world already. Whitham’s age was an important consideration when evaluating her.

“That’s important,” Averbuch West said. “We would never bring a player into our environment who isn’t ready, mentally and physically, to train like every other player here, and Mak not just fit right in, but has been a great contributor to the group. (She has) consistency in terms of her technical execution under pressure, (her) tactical understanding, and she has some really amazing physical talents that make her an exciting prospect. So, we feel like she has the full picture, in addition to a really great mindset.”

It’s typical for young players to join NWSL clubs during preseason windows. For Gotham this year, this was a valuable resource, especially with so many players – including Rose Lavelle, Emily Sonnett, Crystal Dunn and Tierna Davidson – absent from training for national team duty or recovering from injury. The club even tapped Heather O’Reilly, 39, who trained with the club this preseason in a player-coach role.


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“For us, it’s very important to have young talent coming into the setup,” Gotham head coach Juan Carlos Amorós said in a call with reporters, adding how Gotham considered bringing in collegiate talent, too. “It’s very difficult when the national team takes away seven of your players, and you need to fill the team with other players for five weeks or six weeks in preseason, and there are certain rules that you need to stick to that you really can’t break.”

Clubs are also navigating a fast-changing professional landscape, where more and more young players are forgoing collegiate play altogether.

In early March, for example, Angel City signed Kennedy Fuller, a former University of North Carolina commit, just days before her 17th birthday. Fuller joined fellow teenager Casey Phair, who in July became the youngest player to debut in a World Cup. Phair only played one season of high school soccer before she debuted professionally.

Whitham is also likely to follow a similar path, telling The Athletic, “I will not be doing high school soccer, and pro has just been my focus – no college. I’ve always wanted to go pro – and getting that goal (in the Women’s Cup) was nice to know that I can hang in there and just be around those professional players.”

These young players continue to break records. During the NWSL’s opening weekend, Kansas City Current’s Alex Pfeiffer became the youngest goal scorer in NWSL history in the team’s inaugural match at its new stadium. At 16 years, 3 months and 20 days old, Pfeiffer beat the previous record set by Moultrie in 2022 by about five months.

These moments were possible thanks to Moultrie, who paved the way for the NWSL’s U-18 entry mechanism. The NWSL forbade players under 18 from entering the league until Moultrie sued for her right to play.

The U-18 entry mechanism, modified ahead of this season, establishes a non-public, U-18 entry list that is maintained by the NWSL. Teams are allowed only four U-18 players between the list and their roster, and these players would occupy a full roster spot. Players on the list are not tradable, and the entry list spots are also not tradeable.

Including a player on the entry list comes with stringent requirements: a player can only be added with parent or guardian consent; a player on the list must be signed to a guaranteed contract within 30 days of list placement; and any awarded contract must run, at a minimum, through the season that player turns 18.

Any U-18 players on a roster also are subject to other rules. These players cannot be waived or traded by a club until the player turns 18, unless with the player and parent or guardian consent. Loans for these players are also approved on a case-by-case basis by the league, and players must live with a parent or guardian until their 18th birthday.

There are also outlines for things such as providing U-18 players with housing, tuition or tutoring, as well as other guidelines for minors in the league. If Gotham were to sign Whitham or any player under 16 years old, they would also have to navigate a New Jersey law that prevents 14 and 15-year-olds from working past 7 p.m. The rule has proven to be an issue for the New York Red Bulls this season, who were forced to sideline homegrown forward Julian Zakrzewski Hall until the team had a midday game.

Whitham’s father was with the 13-year-old in Colombia. Averbuch West said the club was very intentional about checking in with her to better understand her unique needs.

“Mak is clearly very ready, not just to handle this level, but to excel in our sessions,” Averbuch West said. “But at the same time, there are different considerations for players of all different ages, and, especially a young player, when it comes to making sure we’re educating on nutrition, on physical development, when we’re in the gym, on mental development and mental performance. Because of her age, we have a specific lens that we do that with.”

Whether Whitham’s future is with Gotham remains to be seen. Any contract she signs would have to run through the 2028 season.

“Each step along the way, we decided, ‘okay, now it makes sense for us to continue this journey together,’” Averbuch West said. “And, obviously, anyone who’s in our environment, if they can help our team win, we’re always evaluating what part they can play in our team’s success.”

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