16-year-old Nathan Worth celebrates scoring his first professional goal, capping a strong end to his first season with FC Tulsa in the 2023 campaign. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic
Nate Worth looks like your typical 16-year-old kid.
His sleeves tend to furrow like curtains on his arms as he’s yet to completely fill out his 5-foot-8 frame. His face looks as if it has not met a razor in its lifetime. And his hairstyle – a dirty blonde mullet – more than reflects modern high school trends.
But in truth, Worth couldn’t be more different than your average teen.
For one, he’s a talented soccer player that plays professionally for FC Tulsa, which is unique for his age to put it lightly. But if you sit down and talk with Worth, you come to realize that talent isn’t the sole reason he’s one of youngest players in USL Championship history. He may look young, but he doesn’t act like it.
At the age of 16, Worth made the decision to leave his hometown in New Jersey to go across the country to follow his soccer dream in Oklahoma. In doing so, he left family, friends, and the only place he had ever called home behind.
“I thought it was beneficial for me to make the move, to make the jump, because I wanted to continue playing at that high level in the USL,” said Worth, who made his debut in the Championship as a USL Academy signing for the New York Red Bulls II in 2022 before the club’s move to MLS NEXT Pro this year.
“The first few weeks were a little tough for me, just because it was my first time moving away from home. So obviously being away from family and all my friends wasn't easy at first. But I started to make friends with all my teammates, and the staff were kind of here to help me. So I'd say it took me a few weeks to get adjusted. But right now I feel like this place is like home.”
FC Tulsa's Nathan Worth passing on his game-worn jersey to a fan following the club's home finale in October. | Photo courtesy Victor Schwanke / FC Tulsa
For many, making such a large step in life to move to an unfamiliar city would be daunting. But Worth is not one to shy away from opportunity. Throughout his young life, he’s continued to face challenges head on and take advantage of any chance to grow as a person and a player.
At 10 years old, Worth was scouted by the New York Red Bulls while playing local club soccer. They brought him in for a trial to see if he would fit in with the academy. Ultimately, the club decided to bring him into their academy set-up. Not only were they impressed with his play on the pitch, Worth said, but they were also impressed with his mentality.
From there, the youngster never looked back. Worth’s talent and maturity helped him move up age groups within the Red Bulls system, allowing him to continue to prove himself against better and older competition.
“Playing with older guys was definitely a big, big part of my development for sure,” Worth said. “Being in a professional environment, it kind of brings light to things that you weren't necessarily used to or aware of. So I'd say you definitely mature very quickly.”
Soon enough, Worth proved that he more than just belonged with higher competition. He excelled as a leader. He went on to captain the Red Bulls’ Under-15 team, and later on, captain the United States national team’s U-15 squad as well.
“What a captain needs to do is lead by example; if you’re doing the right things, it encourages the other players around you to do the right things.” Worth said about his leadership philosophy. “Communication is [also] a massive tool in any aspect of life, especially on the soccer field. Communicating courage, encouraging your teammates, organizing are massive parts of the game and that makes a good leader on the pitch.”
At his point in his career, Worth realized that playing professional soccer was more than just an abstract fantasy, it was a career within reach. Even on the precipice of what Worth considered a “blessed opportunity,” he said he knew that his talent could only take him so far. He knew he needed to continue to put the work in and continue to learn. For Worth, that’s the only way a player can continue to ascend on and off the pitch.
“You can be technical, you can be athletic, but if you're not smart, and you don't learn, then you'll never you never make it to the next level,” said Worth.
On June 25, 2022 he made his USL Championship debut for the Red Bulls II on the road against El Paso Locomotive FC aged just 15 years, 119 days old. After making seven appearances for the side over the campaign, he found his next stop in the form of FC Tulsa.
FC Tulsa's Nathan Worth started the club's final nine games of the regular season, showing impressive composure in the center of midfield. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Worth has now called the club home for almost seven months now since signing in March. He’s had a breakout season, making 18 appearances in Black-and-Gold overall while starting the final nine games of the campaign. Reflecting on his decision, Worth said he has no regrets.
Even though he is the youngest player on the squad, Worth said the players and coaching staff have made him feel right at home. They’ve also helped him learn and continue to develop as a player.
“There's definitely been a few players that have helped me tremendously,” Worth said. “Some of the captains of the team have really been there for me, put me under their wing [...] As a young player, it's really about using that knowledge that you have in front of you and how you can improve yourself on the field and off the field with the advice that they give.”
FC Tulsa missed out on the postseason this year, but with Worth in the lineup the club showed progression under first-year Head Coach Blair Gavin. The teenager was one of the key players in the side’s 2-1 victory against 2022 Championship title winner San Antonio FC on September 3, and he then bagged his first professional goal in a season-ending 5-2 win a Hartford Athletic, providing belief in the project being built by Gavin.
Nathan Worth is aiming to be part of an FC Tulsa squad that is aiming high in its on-field and off-field moves with the goal of delivering success. | Photo courtesy Victory Schwanke / FC Tulsa
“FC Tulsa, they’re trying to compete for championships,” Worth said. “Our goal is to be a playoff contending team and with the signings we've made, I think it's pretty clear that we're trying to build a great team to finish even higher next year and make a playoff run.”
Despite his age, Worth is putting the onus on himself to drive Tulsa forward. Next year, he said, he wants to continue to be a big part of the team and wants to help them fight for championships.
But even with his lofty ambitions, Worth won’t let himself get bogged down by his and others’ expectations. All that truly matters next season and all his future seasons, according to Worth, is that he is “satisfied with the effort” he puts in and that he continues to enjoy the game he loves.
Even while facing extraordinary success, Worth continues to stay grounded and take every victory and defeat in stride. Such is a mindset expected of a hardened pro, not a 16-year-old rookie.
But Nate Worth is not your average teenager.