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Chloe Ricketts

"It's a dream come true." She aspired to play professional soccer. What a 16-year-old can teach us about fulfilling our dreams.

4 months ago

Latest Post Anthony Kim by Matt Keyser public
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There was a moment years ago when Aaron Byrd knew that Chloe Ricketts had the makings of a soccer star.

She was 13, maybe 14, and Byrd had recently moved Ricketts up to train with his college players — the 18-year-olds and up, the talented and gifted, the ones with professional aspirations. Most importantly, the ones who could show Byrd what Ricketts was really made of. She was no more than 5 feet tall, a feather in the wind playing against stronger and faster players, and there was no denying she had all the talent and skills and mentality to hold her own, but Byrd worried if she was physically ready.  

He feared that during their full-speed scrimmages, Ricketts may get injured against the players who weren’t afraid to slide, tackle, and do whatever it took to win. How would he explain an injury to her parents?

Among the college players was a man from England, a left-footer who loved to slide tackle and kick you and play downright physical. The man gave Byrd a puzzled look when Ricketts took the pitch as if to say, Who is this little girl? 

“Don’t let her fool you,” Byrd told him. “She’ll be the first one to kick you if she gets the opportunity.”

Sure enough, Ricketts held true to her coach’s word.

“He takes a heavy touch and she comes flying in, and she goes straight through him, hits him in the leg, and he goes down on one knee,” Byrd recalls. “He looks over at me because I’m just coaching off to the side, and I have the biggest smirk on my face. He says, ‘I love this girl.’”

Even at 14, Chloe Ricketts was proving she could hang with the best.

When Ricketts signed with the Washington Spirit, an NWSL soccer club in Washington D.C., in March 2023, headlines flooded the internet about this 15-year-old phenom who became the youngest player in league history to sign a professional contract (15 years, 283 days).  

Chloe Ricketts, the youngest scorer in NWSL history, displays her trademark intensity and technical skill against the Portland Thorns. Her meteoric rise from spirited youth to professional sensation continues to inspire fans and teammates alike. [Associated Press photo]

Changes to league rules allow NWSL teams to sign players younger than 18, with a few conditions: they must be on the team’s active roster, they must live with a parent or guardian until they’re 18, and they can’t be traded until they’re 18 without parent approval.

Ricketts accepted a non-roster invitation to join Spirit during preseason training camp. Even at 15, Ricketts possessed a “competitive drive and ability to compete with players at the professional level.” The preseason program gave her and the team an opportunity to feel each other out — the coaches a chance to get a feel for her style, Ricketts a chance to see how she meshed with the older players. Her skills shined; her personality proved she could handle the moment. A month later, Ricketts signed her contract.

“Chloe has shown great quality with and without the ball and has an incredible intensity in everything she does,” former Spirit coach Mark Parsons said after her signing. “The vision and infrastructure of our club make this signing possible, and we are looking forward to Chloe developing and becoming an important player and teammate for our team.”

It was a pinch-yourself moment for Ricketts, who dreamed of playing professional soccer when she practiced drills in the backyard or basement of her Michigan home.  

Ricketts says she wasn’t a good player back then, often being relegated to C or D teams. But Byrd, her training coach since she was 7, says that even at a young age, her talents shined. 

Ricketts comes from a soccer family. Her dad loves the game and played through high school until he blew out his knee; her aunt played for the University of Michigan. 

“My dad always put me in environments where I wasn’t the best, so I could improve,” she says. “He just kept pushing me.”

Ricketts quickly advanced through Byrd’s training programs. When she was 12 years old, she joined an all-boys team, facing faster and more intense players. It was quite the change of pace for the young Ricketts, who says she was a sensitive player who didn’t like people yelling at her. Although she was subjected to some bullying, she’s thankful for that time because she developed thicker skin that “helped me grow.” 

“I think a lot of my old teammates are still my best friends,” she says. “They really did help shape me into the person I am today, the player I am today.”

That is to say, she’s fun, kind, and caring. She loves her family’s at-home zoo — namely the snakes and lizards. She loves spending time with her mom and dad and brothers and sisters. She enjoys sewing. But she’s also a competitor. She’s passionate about soccer, aggressive on the pitch, and confident that she can dominate with her skills.

“My playing style is very technical and intense,” she says. “I like to run as much as I can, and I like getting into tackles.”

Says Byrd, “Chloe can do things with a ball that most players can’t do.”

There are four traits that Byrd looks for in a professional soccer player: technical skills, physicality, mental acumen, and emotionality. 

Chloe Ricketts of the Washington Spiritsignsautographs for young fans. She remains grounded and connected to her supporters, exemplifying the humility and dedication that have defined her journey from training fields to the NWSL.

Does the player possess the right technical skills to pass, dribble, and shoot the ball? Are they strong and fast and not scared of contact? Do they have the mental strength to handle the adversities the game will inevitably throw at them? And are they emotionally capable of handling failure?

“Chloe passes all of those,” Byrd says. “I have a ton of players who pass probably two of them; very, very few who pass three; and none at her age who pass all four.”

Though Ricketts made a career playing soccer with older players — often she was still the best player on the pitch — she joined a professional league that features the most skilled players in the world: the Sophia Smiths and Kerolins and Alex Morgans. 

Parsons, the Spirit coach, eased Ricketts into professional soccer. That meant little playing time as she acclimated to the team, training, and her new routine. Not only was she a professional soccer player, but also a high schooler with an online course load.  

Ricketts admits that at times it’s a grueling schedule, but she understands “it’s all for a bigger purpose.”

Her resilience paid off six weeks after her signing when she was called to take the pitch. She played 24 minutes and said rather than fighting nerves, she couldn’t stop thinking, “No way I’m doing this.” Then in July came a moment she considers a highlight of her career.

Spirit were playing NJ/NY Gotham FC in a Governor Cup match. In the 69th minute, with Spirit leading 3-2, Ricketts took a through ball from fellow forward Ashley Hatch that split three defenders. As she broke towards the goal, sheth buried a shot past a diving goalkeeper for her first professional score.

Not only was Ricketts the youngest player signed to an NSWL contract, but she also became the youngest player in league history to score a goal (16 years, 2 months, 5 days).

“That whole week leading up to the goal, I was performing really well — at my best,” she says. “It was just so surreal.”

Ricketts finished her rookie season having played in 11 games — starting two — and scoring one goal.

“This past season was just like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I did that!’” she says. “It’s a dream come true.”

As she prepares for her sophomore season, she’s thankful for an offseason in which she got to bond with her teammates — some of whom are twice her age — who are helping her settle into her career. She says she feels more comfortable with herself at a time when she’s spending so much time away from her family in Michigan. 

“The Washington Spirit really is the best place for me. The environment is amazing, the staff that we have, the technology that we have, and the way everyone really cares about the players is on a different level,” she says. “I think it’s the best club for women’s soccer.”

She’s learning she can play at this level and is ready for a new season that she hopes leads to more minutes, more goals, and more opportunities to help her team win. 

Chloe Ricketts, the Washington Spirit's young phenomenon, stays focused during a training session. At just 15, Ricketts began a career that defies expectations, displaying an intense competitive spirit and technical skill that caught the attention of her coach. [Associated Press photo]

She spent part of the offseason with Byrd at his training facility in Michigan, undergoing a program that was more rigorous than any she’s taken. As Byrd says, “The way I train our college kids is different than how I train our 12-year-olds. How I train our pro athletes is different than how I train our college players.”

His biggest focus for her was on defense, helping her understand the moments in the game where she can attack and “let Chloe be Chloe” and when it’s time to simplify and pass and let those “Chloe” moments come to her.

“This is the first offseason where Chloe is getting reprimanded for her lack of defending or for her decision-making,” Byrd says. “Because when you try to dribble against a championship player and he steals the ball from you and scores, you’re now accountable for those players on your team.”

Though tough, Ricketts is thankful for Byrd.

“I could never repay him for all the work he’s put in to help my career,” she says. 

As Ricketts walks me through her career, I realize that these moments she’s discussing aren’t so long ago: joining Byrd’s training program (nine years ago), playing on the all-boys team at 12 (four years), signing with Spirit (one year).  

I ask her what it all means: to be the youngest person to sign professionally, to be the youngest goal scorer in league history, to accomplish so much at 16.

“I’m learning,” she tells me, “that age is just a number.”

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Matt Keyser

Published 4 months ago