June 21, 2024

SAN DIEGO — Before making waves in the NWSL with the San Diego Wave and earning a call-up with the U.S. women’s national team, up-and-coming attacker Jaedyn Shaw first needed a reliable stream of family support.

“I owe everything to my parents for the sacrifices that they made for me,” the 18-year-old Texas native told ESPN. “I know that we didn’t always have a lot to work with, and they always made sure that I had what I needed to be able to play the game that I love.”

It’s no secret that youth soccer in the U.S. is a costly undertaking — a 2022 survey from Project Play highlighted that households were spending an average of $1,188 per soccer season — more than on basketball, baseball or American football in their analysis — and committing to Shaw’s ambitions meant at one point her family living in a one-bedroom apartment.

“Me and my brother shared a bed in the living room, my parents had the [one] room and all four of us shared one bathroom,” she said. “It was chaotic, but I think that it brought us so close as a family and it allowed us to just be grateful for each other’s presence, even in the midst of hard times.

“They sacrificed absolutely everything for me.”

That investment — in her tournaments, gear, travel, player registration, and so much more — has certainly paid off through the ongoing development of one of the most promising talents in American women’s soccer.

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By the time she was 17, Shaw not only signed a professional contract with the Wave, but also scored for the NWSL team in her debut last summer. By 18, she had extended her Wave contract to 2026 and established herself as a key figure for her club, which paved the way to winning 2022’s U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year award and earning a first-ever senior USWNT call-up last month. On Sunday, she finished the NWSL regular season having scored the most goals as a teenager in NWSL history, helping clinch the Wave’s first-ever NWSL Shield.

Celebrating her 19th birthday on Friday, Shaw has another possible USWNT selection on the horizon for October’s friendlies. In November, she’ll have a chance to fight for a potential first-ever NWSL title in the upcoming playoffs.

Noticeably level-headed in a way that’s both humble and confident, Shaw is savoring every moment in the exciting early stages of her career — especially after experiencing a serious setback that paused her dreams not too long ago.

Gaining gratitude and strength after injury

“I wasn’t really doing much — it was literally just dribbling and my knee just happened to literally give out,” Shaw said about tearing her ACL when she was 16. “It was a freak accident. Honestly, it wasn’t contact or anything.”

Her first major injury left her sidelined for seven-and-a-half months. Recovering during a time in which many were still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Shaw was eventually able to seek help from a physical therapist, but she needed to do plenty of recuperation work at home.

“[She] really had to do a lot of rehab on her own,” said Tracey Kevins, who has coached Shaw at the U.S. youth national team level. “The world closed down and she very much had to make the best of the resources that she could get hold of.”

Luckily for the young player, she had her family to turn to.

“It was definitely a low for me, but I’m so grateful for my support system,” Shaw said. “My mom, literally — we had a schedule. It was 8 a.m. exercises, 8 p.m. exercises, like every single day.”

For Kevins, the moment served as an intriguing test for the teenager. “You always look to see, how does a player react when they have some sort of setback, because obviously they picture their journey as being very linear,” the youth national team coach said. “We know it’s very different and there’s ups and downs during that journey. She actually came back a better player, subsequent from that injury, which is remarkable.”

Once representing a low in her development, Shaw reframed the injury as fuel for her career. Within months, she would earn a chance to train with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit in 2022. Later that summer, through the NWSL’s so-called “discovery process” that allowed the underage player to enter the league — the NWSL has since established new mechanisms that allow players under 18 — Shaw was signed by the Wave, where she has since become a star in the making.

“It drove me so much to just be grateful for what I have and take advantage of it every day,” she said.

Making waves from Brazil to San Diego

To understand how Shaw began to catch the attention of NWSL clubs — and also the USWNT — we need to go back to the early days of her development. In fact, we have to go to a slight variation of the sport altogether: futsal.

“It allowed me to gain certain qualities at the very beginning of my soccer journey,” Shaw said of her introduction to the sport. “I played strictly futsal until I was pushing maybe 12. I think that it helped me a lot technically and being able to see the game differently.”

She wasn’t held to the bounds of the American scene, either. Through connections from her coaches, futsal took her on once-in-a-lifetime trips to places like Barcelona and Brazil. In South America, she soaked up what she could, even getting a chance during her adventure to practice with Santos’s women’s club.

“Sometimes I would go all alone and go train with the older women’s team, like the senior women’s team,” Shaw said with a surprising nonchalance, later noting that her other trip to Barcelona just happened to be a “world championship kind of thing.”

Although she eventually switched to the outdoor game on grass in youth club soccer, it’s easy to still see the teenager’s futsal influence, and of course, the singular and unique advantages that has provided since her NWSL arrival.

“She’s always had a real ability to understand time and space in the game, so the game very much, compared to others, slows down for her,” Kevins said. “She’s able to find spaces in between units or in between lines. She always thinks so positively when she receives the ball, so she’s always thinking about how can I best take the pass or the dribble that’s gonna hurt the opposition.

“[Shaw] just has an ability to get on the ball in very tight situations. Didn’t matter if she had a player behind her, in front of her, left or right of her, she was super comfortable wanting to receive the ball and find herself in great situations.”

Improving her tactical knowledge along the way with the Wave, and fully embracing any of the handful of different roles in the midfield or frontline that have been given to her, Shaw has already collected 10 goals and four assists in all competitions for San Diego since her 2022 debut.

“Jaedyn’s 18 years of age, but a very mature 18-year-old, a very focused, very dedicated, very diligent 18-year-old,” Wave head coach Casey Stoney told ESPN earlier this month. “She wants to become one of the best players in the world. She’s very driven towards that goal, we’re here to support that.

“Her ability to see space, exploit space, pick up the ball, turn, carry and and feed other players is some of the best I’ve seen and it’s just getting her in the right position to be able to do that.”

In recent months, she’s garnered more trust from Stoney as well. When star striker Alex Morgan was gone on World Cup duty during the summer, that allowed Shaw to be elevated to a more prominent role in the XI. Often occupying different positions in the frontline, the rising talent has looked comfortable when utilized as either a forward, an attacking midfielder, a winger, or anything in between.

And despite admitting that she likes to operate as a No. 10, in the end, Shaw just wants to play.

“I have my preferred position, but put me at left-back — I don’t care as long as I’m on the field.”

Aiming for the next level while chasing an NWSL title, USWNT return

All that said, if there’s one thing that has been stressed by some of those close to Shaw, it’s to not rush things just yet.

“She’s still a young player,” said Kevins. “For her, it’s about how can she continue to develop her game.”

At a October news conference, San Diego’s coach heaped praised on Shaw, but Stoney was also frank about managing Shaw’s minutes in the young player’s second season as a professional, which is technically her first full season with the Wave.

“Sometimes 60 or 70 [minutes] is good enough if you’ve worked hard enough in that role, you’ve done what you’ve needed to do,” Stoney said. “It’s important that you know that that’s okay and someone else can come on and fulfill the role for the next 25 to 30 minutes and do that job.”

Shaw is cognizant of where she has areas for improvement, too. While acknowledging that her final ball and ability to pick out passes are her strengths, she also noted the need to continue adapting to the physicality of the NWSL.

“I think that that’s something that I’ve been trying to work on honestly since I joined the league and something that I am continuing to work on as much as I can,” she said.

Shaw noted that “there’s a lot to improve on,” but knowing full well to not reveal too much to her opponents, she cleverly decided to keep most of her cards close to her chest.

“That’s all I’m giving you on that right now,” she said with a laugh.

Seeking to take her game to another level, the up-and-coming product from Texas will soon have an enticing opportunity to be able to do so through the NWSL playoffs, which begin on Oct. 22. Thanks to winning the NWSL Shield as the regular season league-leaders, Shaw and her Wave teammates have automatically booked a home game in the semifinal round, which begins on Nov. 5.

If San Diego were to win that semifinal, it would also host this season’s NWSL Championship at Snapdragon Stadium, the Wave’s home venue that holds the league record for attendance in a playoff match (26,215).

“I think that [the championship] being in San Diego is an awesome opportunity,” Shaw said. “The fans have showed up for us every single game and we’re gonna continue to show up for them and give them the entertainment that they deserve.”

She’ll also keep her fingers crossed about another possible USWNT selection this month for a set of friendlies against Colombia. With the second of the two games landing at Snapdragon Stadium on Oct. 29, Shaw, if selected, would have a chance to make her USWNT debut in front of her family who have since moved to San Diego.

And reflecting back on her first USWNT selection last month, an international break in which she didn’t appear in either friendly against South Africa, Shaw hasn’t forgotten that stream of support behind her.

“It was a surreal moment, just being able to call my mom and be like, ‘Hey, I got the call-up, it’s happening,'” Shaw said.

Call-up or not this month, NWSL title or not next month, no matter what happens ahead, she’ll keep her level-headed attitude along the way.

“I was on a high for a little bit and then I had to kind of come down and be like, ‘Okay, this is the beginning,'” Shaw said about her career rising through last month’s call-up. “It’s not like I made it [and] that’s it. You gotta get there, you gotta stay there, you gotta earn your spot.”

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