Pugh goes pro: 5 prospects who could follow her path to stardom

Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

Mallory Pugh is still the exception, not the rule, but other teens are talented enough to follow in her footsteps.

The news that rising U.S. women’s national team star Mallory Pugh will leave college before playing an official match was noteworthy, even if it wasn’t an enormous shock.

Pugh is only the second U.S. women’s player in recent history to forego college early. Current Portland Thorn Lindsey Horan signed with PSG in France instead of playing college soccer at North Carolina back in 2012, before moving back to the U.S. in 2016.

At present, players like Pugh and Horan are very much the exception rather than the rule (Courtney Strode also recently made the jump, with far less fanfare). Given the robust opportunities to play college soccer, and its reliability to churn out full women’s national team talent, there is not an impending exodus looming in the women’s game.

However, as the National Women’s Soccer League continues to grow, and with U.S. Soccer showing a willingness to expand its player pool to younger ages, high-end talent could start leaving school early or bypassing it altogether. The landscape is shifting, and U.S. head coach Jill Ellis has called in a number of teenagers into full camps over the past year.

Even if it seems a bit incredulous to suggest a player would leave or bypass chances at an education at places like North Carolina, Duke, Stanford or Virginia for pro opportunities, talented players who could follow Pugh’s lead are out there.

Five of those candidates are noted below.

Brianna Pinto, midfielder

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

It’s been nearly four years since Brianna Pinto earned her first call-up at a U.S. youth national team camp, and she’s progressed and developed into a star player at this stage in her career. An athletic box-to-box midfielder that could potentially add something from wide attacking roles, Pinto was a member of last year’s U.S. Under-17 World Cup squad in Jordan, and looks to anchor U.S. youth teams in the near future.

Pinto’s ability to cover large swathes of ground at this stage of her career is one of many standout traits that should have fans of the North Carolina women’s soccer team eager for her arrival in 2018. However, her ascendancy has caught the attention of Ellis, as Pinto earned a full-team call-up for the SheBelieves Cup in February. Continued progression, and more exposure to high levels of U.S. Soccer will further help the North Carolina native, and she certainly has the physical and technical abilities to make the early jump.

Jaelin Howell, midfielder

When it comes to having the athleticism to project as a future national team player, Jaelin Howell has that box ticked genetically. Her dad John, is a former NFL safety that won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Howell is much more than just an athletic midfielder that excels with her physical abilities. A smart, rugged defensive midfield, Howell reads the game well and is fearless going into challenges, providing a steady presence in front of a back four.

Howell is a Colorado native who has emerged at the same club as Mallory Pugh, playing for Real Colorado in the Elite Clubs National League. Howell’s already had a chance this year to demonstrate that she can hang with professionals, as she played for the U.S. Under-23s against the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars at the Thorns Spring Invitational this year. Committed to play college soccer at Florida State, a program regularly sending players to the pros, Howell is all but certain to continue that trend if she makes it to Tallahassee. If her development accelerates, perhaps Ellis opens the door to Howell earlier.

NEXT: Another UCLA player-to-be who could test the pro waters