On Saturday, just prior to their match against the Seattle Reign, the Washington Spirit announced that the team had signed one of the hottest young players and the first from the United States to make the leap to the professional level without playing in college, 19-year-old Mallory Pugh.
On Tuesday, Pugh participated in her first training session with the team, and the Spirit introduced her to the local media at the Maryland SoccerPlex. She is expected to play in the Spirit’s home game this Saturday, May 20 against FC Kansas City.
Pugh, who turned 19 years old on April 29, is a bona fide phenom. Pugh has made 22 appearances and scored four goals for the U.S. Women’s National Team since she received her first call-up in January 2016. She became the youngest player in U.S. history to score an Olympic goal while competing at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, finding the net in a 2-2 draw against Colombia.
"This is a historical and monumental moment for the Women’s Game, and we are really excited for Mallory. We are excited for our club. We are excited for our league, as well as the Women’s National Team,” said Spirit head coach and general manager Jim Gabarra. “We are extremely humbled and grateful for the opportunity to develop such a talented player. We look forward to having Mallory join the Spirit family."
“Today at training,” said Pugh, “I felt like I just meshed right in. We were playing around, and there were smiles all over the field, which I love. If you are not having fun, you are not going to succeed. I can really tell that everyone was having fun, but also it was very competitive and wants to get better.”
Pugh graduated high school Colorado last spring. She had the opportunity to turn pro and sign with the Portland Thorns but opted instead to play and attend UCLA. She deferred her fall semester to play in the Under-20 World Cup for the US in Papua New Guinea last December. She attended training and classes at UCLA over the winter before deciding she would leave college and turn pro in mid-April.
Signing Pugh was quite the coup for Gabarra and the Spirit. For weeks it had been reported around soccer circles that Pugh didn’t want to play for the Spirit because of the team’s tumultuous off-season. She was expected to make her pro debut with a European team.
“I think it was a lack of proper information,” said Gabarra when questioned about why Pugh had the change of heart and decided to come to Germantown. “Mallory went through this decision making process. She was going to get as much information as she could and make the best decision for her after she spoke to people that were close to her.”
The Spirit had the rights to Pugh by using its number one spot in the NWSL Distribution Ranking Order. Washington acquired the first position via a series of offseason trades, with an eye on a player of Pugh’s quality becoming available as the burgeoning NWSL continues to attract the world’s top talent and fans.
Gabarra met with the Pugh in Los Angeles last week.
“I think the talk that you heard and the reports that were out there were prior to us being able to present to her what our club has to offer and get a chance to make a connection with her and find out what she wanted as she was turning pro. What did she want from the club? What did she want for herself?”
“We presented to her that we think this is the best place for her to grow and develop. That is what we are all trying to do, is develop as players and people,” said Gabarra.
“Obviously last year,” said Pugh, “I was considering going to the NWSL right out of high school, but in life, I felt like I just needed to experience that. This has been a lingering thought and decision. I am glad that I chose UCLA, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I met great people and the coaches were amazing there.”
“I think that at this point in my life I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and push myself and grow,” she said. “I have had a lot of conversations with my close coaches, my parents, and my friends. Ultimately, it was my decision, and I am happy with my decision. I think coming here everything will help me and it feels good.”
The addition of Pugh will be an immediate offensive threat, and a box office draw for the Spirit, which is currently at the bottom of the standings table of the NWSL, after losing 5-2 to Seattle on Saturday. The Spirit have won just one game five weeks into the season.
“She is an exciting, dynamic player with a lot of attacking abilities,” said Gabarra. “She expressed to me some of the things that she feels she needs to work on, which is a good fit for our style of play. We play two different systems. She will learn how to play both positions. She is going to bring a lot of energy, and a lot of pace, and good attacking threat, which is a good fit for us.”
Gabarra said the Spirit would continue to use her attacking ability while helping to hone the young player’s defensive skills. “I see her in the 11-type attacking position and trying to get the end line, which is something that is our style of play, which is high pressing. And she wants to get better with her individual defending. I think that she has the mentality that is going to press and win the ball back. That is something that all of attacking players have, and it is something in her that we see as an asset in her that fits in well with our team.”
Pugh’s new teammate and one of the Spirit’s captains, Shelina Zadorsky believes that the team will rally around Pugh and make the young player’s transition to a professional athlete as smooth as possible.
“I think the important thing is that we are supportive and we are encouraging just like we are to every player on the pitch,” said the Bronze Medal winner and a member of the Canadian Women’s Team member. “I think it is about the environment we create. It is that team environment where people are allowed to flourish and grow as individuals, but we are working toward collective goals as a team too. But I think it is about having fun as well and letting her enjoy being a professional.”
With the signing, Washington’s roster now features three official Federation Players and two international players. Pugh joins Canadian Federation defender Shelina Zadorsky and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé, as well as Danish international midfielder Line Sigvardsen Jensen and Nigerian international forward Francisca Ordega.
During her whirlwind career with the U.S. Youth National Teams, Pugh scored 15 goals in 12 appearances with the U-17 WNT and captained the U.S. team that finished fourth at the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. She was also a key player at the 2014 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada at the age of 16, starting all four matches at the tournament. Pugh finished her U-20 international career with 19 goals in 29 caps.
In 2015, Pugh was honored as U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year after leading all players at the CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship with seven goals. She has been a mainstay in the U.S. Soccer player pool since 2011 when she attended her first identification session and training camp at the U-14 level.
Pugh was named the 2014-2015 Gatorade National Girls Soccer Player of the Year after scoring or assisting 36 goals for the season at Class 5A Mountain Vista High School in her hometown of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She played club soccer in the Elite Clubs National League for Real Colorado, where she helped lead her team to multiple ECNL National Finals berths, including a trip to the 2013 ECNL title match. Pugh’s dominance with Real Colorado helped her earn the honor of 2015 NSCAA Youth Girls National Player of the Year.
“I think for me it is all about playing and trying to win games and make an impact,” said Pugh. “The most important thing is trying to develop and having fun with it. Coming in and building relationships and having fun playing soccer.”
The Spirit’s head coach and general manager tempered some expectations of Pugh’s performance on the field.
“It is important that we not have too high expectations for Mallory,” said Gabarra. “This is a long process, whether it is a 19-year-old or 30-year-old international, it takes almost a year of games to feel comfortable and figure it out. It is important that we let Mal enjoy the process and be free just to learn and develop and not say that say that she is coming in here to lift this team up. This team is in a good place. We are welcoming the injection of energy, and youth, and quality that she is going to bring without setting the bar way, way high. She is just like any other player that has come in. We may have to remind ourselves that she is 19, but she is just another player on the roster.”
Top: The Spirit introduced Mallory Pugh to the media today after her first workout with the team. Spirit head coach and general manager Jim Gabarra with Mallory Pugh showing off Pugh’s No. 11 jersey. Photo courtesy Washington Spirit. Photo Credit Tony Quinn / ISI Photos
Next: Mallory Pugh addressing reporters at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
Next: Spirit Head Coach Jim Gabarra discussing Pugh’s impact on the team.
Next: Mallory Pugh was all smiles during her first workout with her new teammates at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Tuesday. Photo courtesy Washington Spirit. Photo Credit Tony Quinn / ISI Photos
Next: Spirit captain defender Shelina Zadorsky, the newest member of the Spirit forward Mallory Pugh, Jim Gabarra, and Washington Spirit president Chris Hummer.
Photos by Germantown Pulse unless otherwise noted.