Like a lot of 17 year olds, Mallory Pugh loves playing sports. But unlike her high school friends, the team Mallory plays for is the United States.
As captain of the US Women’s National Team U-20 squad, Mallory is the youngest player to take the field for the USWNT since 2005 and the youngest to score a goal in the past 16 years.
And she helped the team win Olympic qualifiers in Texas. Last Monday, Mallory was on the field as the USWNT steamrolled Puerto Rico, 10-0, and assisted on the first goal of the match.
Although Mallory considered becoming professional right out of high school, she recently committed to play for UCLA. Mallory spoke with SI Kids about her experience playing for the United States, balancing school and sports, and who her soccer role models are.
How does it feel right now to be playing at the highest level of soccer in our country at such a young age?
I think it’s a really great honor to be playing at the highest level at 17. I think without the support of my friends and family I definitely wouldn’t be here. But, again, I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m just trying to take it all in.
Is it difficult to keep up with your friends and your “normal” life, like school and hanging out with friends, while you’re so busy with soccer? If so, how does that make you feel?
Sometimes, obviously, I’ll miss out on going to a school basketball game or whatever and I’ll get upset, but I know that being here with the national team is such a great opportunity. All my friends know that. I think they’re just super happy for me, which makes going away from home a little easier.
When did you start playing soccer?
I started playing when I was four!
When do you think you really started standing out as a special player?
I would maybe say when I was U13, so like 12 or 13 years old, that I went to a tournament with my older team, and I think that’s when I mainly and seriously got scouted.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life, to play soccer professionally?
I think ever since I was little — maybe 9 or 10 — I’ve always just had a dream. I think once I started getting invited to youth national team camps, that’s when I really started saying, “Maybe this is possible. Maybe this is something I can do.” I think my first camp I was around 13 or 14.
Were you nervous when you started going to those camps? Was it scary to be with all of these great soccer players?
Yeah, I think I was super nervous, which affected my confidence a little. But I met a lot of great people and great coaches that have helped me throughout the years to build that confidence and make great relationships.
Did you ever have other passions that you had to put aside in order to pursue competitive soccer?
I played basketball. I wasn’t really a fan of basketball too much, but I really liked doing track and field, too. Deep down, whenever I go in the summer time to Beaver Lake, I play beach volleyball, and I’ve always wished I could do that.
Who were your soccer role models growing up and why?
One big one for me was my sister. I don’t think I ever would have started playing soccer if it wasn’t for her. I’ve always looked up to her, and she played at the college level, too, so I think was just a great inspiration to me. And then obviously some players on the national team with just their hard work and all of their motivation to do stuff. That really inspired me, too!
How much older is your sister?
She’s six years older than me.
Will you be able to finish high school with your friends and still train for the Olympics? And do you have any concerns about managing it all?
Yeah, I think finishing high school is one big thing for me right now. I mean, your senior year is something that you only get once, and I think it’s kind of cool that I get to be in with the national team and still have all of that senior year fun. I think my teachers are super, super cool about me missing school, and they understand what it’s for. So they help me manage all of that.
Why did you choose to pursue college instead of going professional right out of high school?
I was really looking into going professional, but I think as of right now with kind of just my life, I just wanted to go to college more!
Have you ever thought about how you might want to give back or make a difference once things settle down, now that so many people know who you are?
Yeah, I think for sure that any time you can just kind of give back and relax a little, it’s something great you can do. My high school team over the past couple of years, we usually work with special needs kids and go out during the weekends and just kind of train with them and play around with them. I think that’s something I would for sure do in the future just because it’s really touching to me, and I think it’s something cool.
What would you say to young girls who aspire to be the best they can be in their sport, whether it’s soccer or another sport?
When I was young, I think one thing that really took a toll on me was knowing if I was able to be there. I think just gaining your confidence through your play and through your friendships with your teammates is really key at such a young age. I think another thing would just be to stay dedicated and motivated for whatever you want to do, because you never know what can happen!
Is that what you did with soccer?
Yeah. My confidence sometimes would go down, but having my friends there and just believing in yourself can make a huge difference.
What does your family think about all of your success?
I think that they’re super happy for me, and with whatever I do they’re really supportive. Without that I don’t think I would be where I am today, so I can’t thank them enough for being there through all of this and going through the tough times with me. They’re really happy for me!
Photos: Scott Halleran/Getty Images (Trinidad and Tobago action, with Morgan), Todd Warshaw/Getty Images (Ireland action)