BOYDS, Maryland — It was early 2016, and Mallory Pugh had made her choice. She’d been hailed as one of the brightest attacking prospects in recent memory—a quick, skilled and incisive player who might just follow in the prodigious golden boots of Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach. The Denver-area native could’ve attended any college in the country. She even had the opportunity to turn pro, as the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns maneuvered to secure the top spot in the league’s player allocation order.
In the end, however, with all those options before her, Pugh selected UCLA. She wanted to live the college life. That was the customary next step in the journey. It’s what the best American female footballers did.
“I think it’s just a cultural thing, getting that experience,” Pugh told SI.com on Tuesday.
But she soon discovered that the prospect of pursuing a different sort of experience remained in the back of her mind. And while she enjoyed Westwood and said she grew as “as a person and as a player” during her six months there, it ultimately was not what she really wanted. She was a 19-year-old adult with 22 senior caps to her credit. She was an Olympian. So six months after enrolling at UCLA (Pugh deferred for a semester in order to focus on the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup), the recruiting process began again.
Her choices this time were more exotic. She could play in the NWSL as a U.S. Soccer Federation contracted player or follow the likes of U.S. captain Carli Lloyd and forward Alex Morgan to Europe. French powers Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyon, which will meet June 1 in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, reportedly were interested. If Pugh stayed home, she’d likely wind up with the Washington Spirit, which had taken over the top spot in the allocation order following the 2016 season. The Spirit got there thanks to a rebuild that included several trades and the departures of marquee players like Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn, Diana Matheson and Estefanía Banini.
It would’ve made sense for Pugh to take her career one step at a time and start her life as a pro in the USA. But that meant a move across the country to Washington, where she’d never been, to an organization some thought was on the downturn. France beckoned.
So Jim Gabarra, who’s coached more seasons of women’s professional soccer than anyone in the country, took a flight to Los Angeles at the beginning of this month. He knew the league and the landscape and had a bit of experience working with national teamers. He won two championships and was seconds from a third last year. And in 2002-03, he helped a highly-regarded University of Florida product who’d fallen out of the U.S. picture adjust to pro soccer and fight her way back in. It was Wambach, who's now the leading goal scorer in women’s international history.
Gabarra and the Spirit were frustrated by some of the poor publicity and by the fact that Pugh hadn’t heard their side of the story.
“I just think it was a lack of proper information when Mallory was going through this decision-marking process,” Gabarra said Tuesday at the Maryland SoccerPlex. “I think the talk you heard and the reports out there were prior to us having a chance to present what our club had to offer and getting a chance to make a connection with her and find out what she wanted.
“We presented to her that this is the best place for her to develop,” Gabarra continued. “With that information out there, she took her time and made the decision that was best to her.”
That’s good recruiting, and on Saturday, the league and club announced that Pugh had chosen the NWSL and, by extension, a move to Washington. She already has a place to live picked out in the Maryland suburbs—a complex about 10 minutes from the stadium where several teammates reside—and on Tuesday she was unveiled to local media alongside Gabarra, Spirit president Chris Hummer and team captain Shelina Zadorsky.
“Mallory choosing to come to the NWSL instead of Europe was a big statement,” Hummer said.
“This is a historical and monumental moment for the women’s game,” Gabarra added. “We’re really looking forward to helping Mallory develop and get her to where she needs to be.”
Gabarra wasn’t overselling it by much. Pugh became only the second American female player to skip college (she took classes at UCLA but never played in an official intercollegiate match). The first was Lindsay Horan, another Colorado native who went from high school to PSG in the summer of 2012. She now, ironically, plays for the Thorns.
American men have been turning pro after high school—and sometimes during—for some time now. The likes of Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Kyle Beckerman are among those well-known veterans who took the leap. Most women, however, made the same choice Pugh did and then stuck with it. There have been times when there wasn’t a viable pro option, but that hasn’t been the only reason.
“Culturally and socially, girls in this country want to go to college, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Gabarra said. “But if you look across the globe at professional and top-level international players, they’re playing against and competing on a day-to-day basis with professionals. We get a player out of college who’s 21, and technically and tactically they’re a little bit behind the European player because they’ve spent the last four years playing in college.”
The debate about the best path for prospective male pros has been going on for some time. Colleges still supply plenty of players to MLS, but the growth of fully-funded youth academies and the increasing rewards for pro success have changed the American game. Now that the NWSL appears to be stable and with U.S. Soccer’s girls development academy starting in September (the Spirit run academies in both Maryland and Virginia), options apart from college should become available to an increasing number of female players. On Tuesday, Pugh kicked off the conversation.
“For me, since I’ve already played with the national team—and that’s a very high level—I think it’s just about development for me at this point. I think seeing where the league is going to go and where it is right now and wanting to play with professional players and up my game, I think right now was the best time I could do it,” she said. “Everyone’s different. Hopefully there will be other players kind of following. I think for me, at this point, it was the right decision … just the development part—that’s the main thing.”
Pugh said she’s confident she can develop in Washington. Whatever Gabarra said in L.A. worked. There was speculation that Portland or other NWSL clubs might try to take advantage of Pugh's potential ambivalence and pry her rights from the Spirit. According to a Thorns source, Washington rejected an offer of two first-round selections in next year's draft (the Thorns hold Orlando's pick). Hummer said, "Essentially we never received any offers at all, formally, and [nothing] in the ballpark."
The Spirit paid quite a price to move up to the top of the allocation order. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of proposal would’ve tempted Gabarra to part with a potentially transformational, generational player.
The youthful Spirit, who are missing four members with ACL injuries, have started the NWSL season 1-3-1. They’re in last place in the 10-team league. Pugh isn’t likely to win a championship this year. But Washington isn’t sitting pat. The club plans to announce the acquisition of a European playmaker soon. Dunn, the 2015 NWSL MVP, is at Chelsea now but intends to return to Washington. She’s only 24. And the construction of D.C. United’s new downtown stadium, Audi Field, may wind up altering the future of two clubs. It’s tough for the Spirit to make much of a dent at the SoccerPlex, which sits nearly 30 miles from the city center. The stadium accommodates around 5,500 fans, and an average of 3,782 turned out in 2016.
“I think the league can grow enough that we can have around 80%-90% capacity at this facility,” Hummer said. “But we’re excited about Audi Field being built and we’re certainly thinking about what it would take to play there. What would it mean? What would the economics look like? We all know each other and we’ve been talking about what it would look like. But it’s very early. It’s not like there’s a term sheet.”
Meanwhile, he’ll hope Pugh adds a bit of intrigue and excitement to a club that could use it. And she believes she’ll be getting something in return.
“At this point in my life, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and push myself to a new level,” she said. “I think playing here is going to help me improve, and it’s going to make me better because I want to help the Washington Spirit win games and help the national team hopefully win games, too.”
Pugh trained with the Sprit for the first time Tuesday. She moves fast. The next big American star should make her pro debut on Saturday when Washington hosts FC Kansas City. It was inevitable. It’s just coming a bit sooner than everyone had expected.