Mallory Pugh doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with being called a “trailblazer.” She laughs a bit sheepishly at the suggestion, even though she’s taking a path with almost no blueprint: The 19-year-old is skipping college to turn pro in the NWSL after signing with the Washington Spirit.
She’s the first American women to go directly to the NWSL, or any pro American women’s league, without playing in college first, the surest sign of how quickly the landscape of women’s soccer is changing.
Pugh recognizes it’s a big deal, but she’s clear the decision was a difficult and personal one for her, and she’s not here to tell any other female athletes what to do.
“Sometimes this might be the right path, and sometimes it might not,” she told FOX Sports. “You have to go through experiences to figure that out. It really depends on the player and their personality. But I think there will be other players that follow – I hope so.”
Mallory Pugh gets instruction from U.S. head coach Jill Ellis during the SheBelieves Cup on March 1, 2017, at Talen Engergy Stadium.
Part of why this is an option for Pugh is that she’s a unique and special talent. She broke into the senior U.S. women’s national team at just 17 years old and became the youngest American to score a goal in an Olympics.
She’s technical when dribbling her way through defenses and seems to float around the box when the ball is at her feet. Off the ball, she’ll pick her moments and dart into space confidently. She’s either mature beyond her years, or so young and carefree that she doesn’t worry about the consequences of committing herself fully to making something happen.
As Mia Hamm once said about her: “Speed kills but technical speed absolutely annihilates defenders. Mallory Pugh is for real.”
She looks as young as she is – she only turned 19 three weeks ago – and she’s usually the youngest player on the field, but she’s used to it by now. She’s been playing above her age group in U.S. Soccer’s youth system for years, so it would only make sense she’d go pro sooner too. But it was hard for her to go against the grain, the traditional and shared cultural experience of going to college.
She attended UCLA for six months, deferring one semester so she could prepare for the U-20 Women’s World Cup last year, because she thought she needed to experience it. But she admits the prospect of going pro lingered in her mind and she left college before playing an official match.
“Going to UCLA and experiencing it just gave me a peace of mind about where I want to be and what I want to do,” she said. “It’s probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life, but I had a lingering thought.
“I’m the type of person where I need to experience something just to know what it’s like and have no regrets. Going there and experiencing it as a player and as a person was super helpful for me. It allowed me to make the next move.”
Though she says the decision was all hers and hers alone, she reached out to everyone close to her for feedback: Her parents, her friends, coaches and teammates on the USWNT. No one pressured her either way. She spoke to USWNT coach Jill Ellis, who let Pugh figure it out on her own.
“She told me, ‘Listen Mal, it’s your decision. We’re here to support whatever you want to do,'” Pugh recalled. “It’s things like that are really helpful in making big decisions.”
Pugh is the second American woman to bypass collegiate soccer to play professionally. The first was her USWNT teammate, Lindsey Horan, who went straight from high school to PSG in France. At the time, playing professional in the United States wasn’t even an option for Horan, who faced a very different women’s soccer landscape.
“I asked her how her experience was at PSG and she told me honestly,” Pugh said of her conversations with Horan. “She said, ‘I’m here for whatever you want to decide,’ but it wasn’t forcing anything.”
Pugh has been thrust into the spotlight since announcing her decision to go pro last month – she admitted she’s never had so many interviews. It comes all while training to be ready for her NWSL debut on Saturday when the Spirit host FC Kansas City.
Although Pugh plays with the panache of a more seasoned player, she’s still very much teenager off the field. Asked on live TV how she’d treat herself now that she has a pro contract, she told reporters she would buy “tubs and tubs of ice cream,” which she admitted wasn’t very extravagant. She was the star of her first press conference Tuesday when the Spirit introduced her – she was prepared and a little nervous, as could be expected from a teenager. Reporters there brought up her ice cream comment and she laughed sheepishly and responded quietly through a smirk: “I do love ice cream.”
A somewhat shy, ice cream-loving teenager may not be the prototype of a generational talent, but Pugh looks to be that. And to bat down offers from teams in France and get Pugh to sign with the Spirit is a big deal for the NWSL, which is now the longest-running professional women’s league in American history. As Spirit coach Jim Gabarra put it at Pugh’s press conference: “This is a historical and monumental moment for the women’s game.”
The women’s game is evolving quickly and, however you look at it, Pugh’s signing is at the forefront of it.
“Women’s soccer is growing very fast,” she said. “In the NWSL, you see a bunch of players competing every weekend – the whole sport in America and all over the world is just really growing. It gives us younger girls hope that we can go out and chase our dreams. I think it’s really cool – I’m very grateful and blessed for this opportunity.”
The landscape is indeed changing fast and she’s the first young player to take advantage of it. She has a pro contract and an endorsement deal with Nike, but all the stars before her – from Mia Hamm to Carli Lloyd – all played in college first. She may be a trailblazer, but she admits her big decision is accompanied with some nervousness. That’s tempered by the advice she sought from her family, friends and teammates, which she believes steered her in the right direction.
“There’s always nerves when you go into a new environment,” she said, “but also having hope and trusting in the people close to you is important. I did that throughout the process.”
Though she’s only barely trained with the Spirit thus far, she can already tell the level of quality is higher than at UCLA. The passes are harder and the speed of play is faster. But throughout the revolving door of press interviews she done, Pugh has expressed confidence this is the best choice for her development as a player. Playing in the NWSL is the best way to chase her dreams.
“I see where I want to be and what I want to do,” said Pugh. “I want to try and achieve my goals and right now this is the best decision for me.”
Even just a few years ago, no female soccer player could’ve said that. There may be new landscape in women’s soccer, but Pugh is helping to shape it. The ice cream is just a bonus.