Teenage sensation Mallory Pugh making waves with USWNT

Mallory Pugh (R) may be part of the United States women's national team but she still has homework to do.

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Mallory Pugh had to think about it for a second. Unlike Crystal Dunn, who said she would celebrate after scoring a record-tying five goals against Puerto Rico in United States women’s national soccer team’s 10-0 win on Monday, Pugh had a few lingering obligations. Like, for instance, calculus.

With a 3.68 grade point average back home in Colorado, Pugh was in a slightly different position after the U.S. wrapped up group play here at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship. The U.S. heads to Houston for the semifinal match Friday, but Pugh has to figure in when to hit the books.

That’s the difference when you’re a 17-year-old high school senior playing for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Pugh lugged along a bag of books to Texas for this tournament, including a massive calculus textbook that doubles for unofficial weight training.

"It’s heavy," said Pugh, wincing at the thought.

The youngest American to ever play for the U.S. national team in Olympic qualifying, Pugh was a starter on Monday night. She figured early in the scoring onslaught. It was the Colorado teenager who, just minutes into the match, made a dynamic run down the left flank, taking the ball to the top of the 18-yard box before passing it square to Dunn in the middle of the area. Dunn took the pass, got the ball immediately under control and rolled it into the right corner to open the U.S. scoring at six minutes.

"As the game went on I got more comfortable. When you make a simple mistake, (my teammates) just tell you keep going, so there’s a lot of positivity and that helps. I think some nerves kind of settled in … once you get that first touch and you’re surrounded by players you train with," Pugh said.

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On a vaunted national team that has seen the likes of Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Tiffeny Milbrett, Kristine Lilly, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd celebrating goal after goal through the years, it was a strange but very appealing sight to see Dunn and Pugh hugging it out on their quick-draw goal. It’s a new era for the U.S. women, and in no small way does the arrival of Pugh demonstrate that a youth movement can feed this national team that has at times taken too long to turn the roster over.

Then again, Pugh is a very rare player. She moves and motors so fast, so naturally, it’s very difficult to understand exactly how she moves from point A to point B. It just happens. She is also faster on the ball than most players are without the ball, so that makes her even more of a threat.

Her talent is undeniable and her ability to fit in with these highly competitive and older national team players shows that, despite her soft-spoken manner and tender age, she belongs.

She won the Gatorade’s Player of the Year award, joining a group of former prep stars like Candace Parker, Allyson Felix, Breanna Stewart and Skylar Diggins. Now, the experience of playing in this Olympic qualifying tournament is a tremendous leg-up for Pugh. By the time the 2019 Women’s World Cup comes around in France, Pugh figures to be a seasoned weapon for the United States.

"She’s a very, very special player and I thought (against Puerto Rico) that she just looks so comfortable," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said, adding: "For a player to come into this environment, playing in front of what are probably the biggest crowds she’s ever been in front of, she’s just done exceptionally well."

Like fellow Colorado native Lindsey Horan, who went straight from high school to the pro ranks in France, Pugh raised some eyebrows in January when there was speculation that she would be the first U.S. woman to go straight from high school to the National Women’s Soccer League. The Portland Thorns did some fancy draft pick dancing and seemed in line to take Pugh, but in the end, Pugh opted for college. She’s headed to UCLA on a full-ride scholarship — a program where Ellis was coach and on a campus that puts Pugh within miles of the U.S. Soccer training site in Carson, Calif. It’s a scenario Ellis likes for Pugh.

"She’s just very gifted on the ball. Her understanding of space and playing off her teammate and also being able to solve things individually. I’m not saying she’s complete, but I think she’s got a long way to go, but for a young player and in terms of where her starting point is very good," Ellis said.

Pugh, meanwhile, is having a ton of fun — and it shows. She said her teammates joke about how young she is, and tease her about having to do homework, but the atmosphere and personalities on the U.S. women’s team are like nothing else in the world.

"It’s so much fun, off the field and on the field," Pugh said. "Off the field, just building relationships and the chemistry with everyone, that translates on to the field. I don’t think without those relationships we would be able to do what we do on the field. But yeah, schoolwork is (something they don’t have to deal with) so we all joke about it. I had to bring a whole other duffel bag filled with textbooks."