Pugh skipping college may forecast the future of U.S. women's soccer

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

First, it was Horan. Now, Pugh. As women's professional opportunities grow, so will the number of players skipping college to leverage them.

Mallory Pugh’s decision to leave UCLA and pursue professional soccer opportunities qualifies as a shocker on the surface, but it isn’t, in reality. For now, it’s a path that remains the exception rather than the rule.

We’d been here before, just over a year ago, and under bizarre circumstances. The National Women’s Soccer League announced minutes before the start of its 2016 college draft the creation of a new rule for priority of acquiring subsidized players. Portland Thorns FC promptly moved up in that order in a trade with the Boston Breakers, and reports swirled that Portland, the league’s true rich-keep-getting-richer team, was about to acquire then 17-year-old Pugh.

That never happened. Following an extensive wait for her final decision, Pugh chose to play for UCLA, except for a few exhibition games, she never did. Pugh deferred enrollment to the spring in order to play in this past fall’s U-20 Women’s World Cup, where she carried a team on her back to a fourth-place finish.

Now Pugh is set to become the second American woman to forgo college soccer and play professionally, joining Lindsey Horan. It’s a move that always made sense for Pugh. Even upon announcing last year that she would play at UCLA, there was an inevitable feeling that Pugh wouldn’t be on campus the full four years. That was predictable.

And really, the timing should have been, too. The U.S. women’s national team just ratified a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer which will see significant increases to player salaries, rights and perks. The best-paid women’s national team on the planet just got a collective raise. Surely, the timing is no coincidence, but Pugh’s decision goes beyond money. Playing professionally – in the right environment – puts her in a place that will challenge her daily and further accelerate her development.

UCLA appeared to have a college dynasty in the making, with Canadian wunderkind Jessie Fleming already on board, Pugh expected and fellow U.S. whiz kid Ashley Sanchez coming to campus next fall. But Pugh’s talent is clear. We plays well beyond her years. She is already one of the better American talents right now, and undisputedly the star of the future. There are direct parallels to Christian Pulisic, though the latter is subject to far more attention.

Pugh’s decision to turn pro cracks the door open just a little bit more into what the future could hold for women’s soccer in the United States. Listen to U.S. women’s technical director April Heinrichs speak, and you hear her laud Europe for its professional setups. Top players are in professional training environments beginning in their teens.

That isn’t the case in the United States, which still stands as a leader in most things women’s soccer. Horan was previously the only American to make the jump, passing on a full scholarship to North Carolina to sign with PSG in 2013. Pugh, after some delay, will join her in bypassing college soccer. Could Sanchez follow? Will Fleming, one of the world’s best teenage talents, stay the full four years at UCLA?

This pathway remains an anomaly, but one which requires significant attention moving forward. Money in the women’s game continues to grow, not just to a slightly more respectable NWSL maximum salary of $41,700, but to the point where a player like Canadian Kadeisha Buchanan, named the top young player at the 2015 World Cup, can make six figures at Lyon and be one of the best-paid players in Europe. Fleming could surely spark a bidding war, too.

Canada coach John Herdman (below) has been at the forefront of discussion surrounding the need for players to be in professional training environments, and it’s only a matter of time before select Canadian internationals choose the professional route over college, which has traditionally developed talent for the program.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

That’s still a path only for the select few, though. Salaries in women’s soccer are notoriously low outside of the elite players, making the very proposition silly for most. Who would pass up a free ride to college, worth several hundred thousand dollars, to be paid less than minimum wage and not even have a guaranteed roster spot?

Horan’s situation was different. She left for a reported six-figure deal with PSG and the opportunity to develop at one of the rising powers in Europe.

Pugh is certainly different, too. She will have a six-figure income whether she plays in Europe or the NWSL, once you consider endorsements. Such pay days are still for the women’s soccer aristocracy, but the top level of the sport is finally reaching the point where being a professional player is an economically viable dream, no longer just a labor of love and financial insecurity.

Others will join Pugh in the coming years, and for the first time, there’s a structure within the United States that hints at a future of homegrown players in the NWSL. The ECNL is now 10 years old, and 30 of the 40 players selected in the 2017 NWSL Draft are alumni of the country’s current top-level national girls’ league. U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy begins in the fall with nine of 10 NWSL teams fielding teams.

For Pugh, the decision is ultimately hers. Teenagers change their minds. A 2015 study cited that about one in every three undergraduate students transfers colleges at least once. Pugh just happens to be moving into a brand new, professional world.

For women’s soccer, the move is a small but significant milestone that hints at a slowly evolving professional landscape.

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.