17-year-old Alyssa Thompson might be the USWNT's future after her debut vs. England, but there's no rush

Alyssa Thompson remembers getting the text message: U.S. women's national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski wanted to talk. She could not call him for a few hours, however. It was, after all, a school day.

When Thompson finally called Andonovski after her high school classes that day in late September, she couldn't believe the news that she would be making the trip to Europe for games against England and Spain. From shocked to speechless, her emotions ran the gamut. Her dad was thrilled. Her mom cried through the joy.

"I think everything that I've done has been leading up to trying to be on this team," Thompson told ESPN.

Thompson, 17, made her debut for the U.S. senior side Friday against England, entering the game in the final minutes as the U.S. looked for an equalizer in an eventual 2-1 loss.

As the youngest player to debut for the U.S. since 2016, when Mallory Pugh joined the squad also as a 17-year-old, Thompson has taken one big step forward on what may be a long path ahead of her as part of the national team.

Rising through the ranks to the USWNT

Thompson is one of the brightest prospects in the pool of young Americans. She is a forward with the technical control to outsmart defenders and the pace to leave them behind in a one-on-one duel, drawing inspiration from players like France and PSG forward Kylian Mbappe.

"I think that's what's really dangerous in my game, taking people on one-v-one," Thompson said. "His speed of play, how fast he is, it kind of relates to me because I'm a pretty fast player."

This camp is her first taste of what she and U.S. Soccer hope is a bright future ahead. Trinity Rodman, 20 years old, is the next-youngest player on the USWNT's current roster. Thompson is used to being the youngest and smallest player on a team by some measure; putting herself in those positions led to this opportunity.

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She first played for a semi-professional team, which lately included former professional players, when she was in the eighth grade. She recently began playing for a U-19 boys' team in MLS Next because she needed a greater challenge.

At first, Thompson and her sister, Gisele, who is one year younger, were just supposed to train with Total Futbol Academy's boys' teams in Los Angeles. The COVID-19 pandemic had limited the ability of their girls' team to train and play matches. Quickly, however, it was clear that the sisters belonged and could contribute. They also welcomed the benefit of increased competition from older, bigger players.

"Honestly, the speed of play is just really fast," Thompson said of the challenge. "It kind of replicates the full [U.S.] team's game, so that's why I was trying to push myself to get to a higher level as well. And then the physicality, if you don't get that one touch, you're going to get hit or tackled. That also helps with my awareness and being able to know when to take players on, when to do one-touch."

This week has taken Thompson's theory to the next level. U.S. women's national team training camps are notoriously demanding. Among the players Thompson is training alongside is Megan Rapinoe -- the "amazing leader," Thompson says, whose career Thompson has followed -- and Sophia Smith, a forward with similar game-changing skills who Thompson calls a role model.

On Friday, Thompson -- wearing No. 13 in the absence of injured veteran Alex Morgan -- subbed on for Rapinoe, who is 20 years her senior.

Rapinoe joked afterward: "I could literally be her mom -- and not even a teen mom." The precise math shakes out to a gap between Rapinoe and Thompson of 19 years and 125 days -- it was the largest gap between any two USWNT players to appear in the same game, ever.

"Being able to play with world-class players -- like the best in the world -- will be an amazing experience for me because that's a level that I have not reached yet or trained with," Thompson said beforehand. "So, being able to do that, I think I'll learn so much and grow as a player throughout the time there."

A first cap against England, in front of over 75,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, is a significant achievement, and she may see the field once more against Spain on Tuesday (live at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2) -- but getting on the field this week is not the end goal. Even the World Cup, which begins in nine months, feels like a stretch to talk about right now.

Andonovski's plan is to expose Thompson to this level so that she is ready for the future, whether that means next year's tournament in Australia/New Zealand, or in the decade to follow. He already sees her individual potential and how she can integrate into the team's style of play.

"Alyssa is a very good player with a very good understanding of the game," Andonovski said. "We think that she has the ability to play as a winger, a No. 7, No. 11, but not a classic winger. She does have a very good understanding of how to come in the next channel, the inside channel, and expose teams in those areas. So, I have no doubt that she will fit in well in our system and will understand -- and has understanding -- how to connect with the players around her."

What's next for the high school star?

Eventually, Thompson says, she wants to play professionally, and she would love to do it in the NWSL. She just attended her first Angel City FC game in person and experienced the incredible atmosphere the NWSL expansion team has established. Living that dream is part of the plan, but all in good time.

Earlier this year, the Thompson sisters became the first high school athletes to sign name, image and likeness (NIL) deals with Nike. They are both committed to play for perennial NCAA powerhouse Stanford, a decision Thompson said she made -- despite ostensible interest from professional clubs -- with an eye toward life after soccer. She is not sure what her career beyond soccer will look like, but she is confident that Stanford will help her figure it out.

That she gets to continue playing with her sister at Stanford will be a bonus. Gisele is a defender, which helps with one-on-one training in the backyard, but Thompson says the relationship is far more supportive than it is competitive.

"I don't know where I would be without my sister," Thompson said. "I definitely would not be the player I am today. [We] push each other the hardest when we do one-v-ones or do anything, really. Any time we are on a team together, it's always the best time and we play really good soccer together. Going to Stanford together and hopefully being on the national team one day, playing high school, any time we are playing together, it's always my favorite time."

That national team dream feels a lot more real now, at least for Alyssa. Both sisters are part of the U.S. youth national team system. Alyssa played in the U-20 World Cup in August and, earlier this year, earned time with the U-23 national team, long considered to be the "next 23," a precursor to the senior national team.

She was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a sophomore in the 2020-21 school year. Playing with older, more advanced players is nothing new for her.

"I'm always in those types of environments because we're always trying to find a way to get better," Thompson said.

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Carlos Marroquin remembers when Thompson's family first approached him in 2018 about having the then 13-year-old train with his team. Marroquin is the general manager and sporting director of Santa Clarita Blue Heat, a semipro team that plays in United Women's Soccer (UWS) during the summer, when top college players are looking to extend their seasons. Players on the roster then included Ashley Sanchez and Savannah DeMelo, who are now Thompson's U.S. teammates in this training camp.

Marroquin was hesitant to let Thompson join, unsure how a 13-year-old would fit in. He eventually gave Thompson (and her sister) a chance, and he was shocked by the talent he saw. From her first practice with the team, she belonged.

"I was so impressed that night," Marroquin said. "I saw in her the best potential ever."

Thompson played with the team for the past four summers, including a league championship in 2021. She references the opportunity as a turning point for her, one that pushed her to be a better player and shaped her to this point in her journey.

Of course, there are areas in which she could improve. She's 17, after all, and there is ample evidence that no journey is linear.

Pugh scored in her senior U.S. debut at 17 and made the Olympic roster later that year. She was on the 2019 World Cup-winning team, but all the while, she has had to manage the hype of being a teenage phenom or the next big star. Combined with injuries, it caused Pugh to have some self doubts and dips in form along the way before putting in MVP-caliber seasons with the Chicago Red Stars in 2021 and 2022 and locking down a starting role for the United States.

Thompson says she could still be more confident taking on players, and she needs to work on the consistency of her crosses. Marroquin sees an opportunity for Thompson to further refine her finishing skills and her timing on the ball.

At 5-foot-4, she has some growing to do, which is to be expected. She previously competed in high school track and plans to again this year. Events like the 100m sprint help her with her explosiveness, she says, even if she finds the individual events more stressful than the team environment soccer offers.

Stress comes with the territory for a young star. Thompson is trying to take it all in stride. She and others know that this is only the beginning.

"For Alyssa, I want to say: This camp is not make it or break it," Andonovski said before the camp. "It's a first experience for her. It's just something that she shouldn't even worry about. I think it's a great experience, great exposure for her, and it's a good experience for us to have an opportunity to work with her. What happens from there, we'll see."