The next who? Spirit's new star can be the first Mallory Pugh
Fair or not, great American forwards will always be subject to comparisons to Mia Hamm or Abby Wambach. The next U.S. goalkeeper, whether she likes it or not, will rise from the shadow left by Hope Solo.
But every once in awhile, there are players whose hype knows no directly comparable counterparts. They are blends of many of ancestors and thus unique in their own right.
Mallory Pugh is one of those players.
The 19-year-old is the most intriguing player in U.S. soccer right now, the National Women’s Soccer League’s first-ever player to forgo college. Qualifying that is a challenge. She might be the next Mia. She might pave a path for other teenagers to follow. She might need time to develop. She might be a lot of things.
Pugh is better defined by seeing traces of those who influence her. She has cited United States teammate Tobin Heath, almost 10 full years her senior, as a player she models her game after. She grew up idolizing Hamm and Brazilian legend Ronaldinho, and she answers the tired, “Messi or Ronaldo?” debate like any true millennial: “Neymar.”
Within Pugh, there is the potential – and that’s the operative word here – for all of that.
“The best way I can put it is that she is her own player, and it’s kind of a blend of all those players that she sees herself in,” says Pugh’s new coach, Washington Spirit boss Jim Gabarra. “She’s different than Tobin and she’s different than Mia, but that might be the closest comparison given the pace.”
Pugh signed with the Spirit last week following her decision in April to leave UCLA without playing a competitive match.
Connecting the dots between Pugh and Heath is relatively simple. They are two of the most dynamic players in a U.S. system that is still more athletic than anything.
Heath, too, was a teen prodigy, and her winding path to an eventual peak in 2016 potentially offers insight into Pugh’s trajectory. Heath made the 2008 Olympic roster as an 18-year-old after making her senior debut earlier that year. She was electric on the ball from the start, known for her willingness to be audacious whether the moment warranted it or not.
But whereas Heath is a purely technical breed, Pugh brings that plus pace that already rivals most on the pitch.
The most comparable situation to Pugh is that of the first U.S. women’s soccer player to ever and turn professional out of high school, someone who Pugh calls a close friend: Lindsey Horan.
Horan famously passed on a full scholarship to powerhouse University of North Carolina to sign with Paris Saint-Germain in France.
Pugh confided in Horan, 22, along with Alex Morgan and Morgan Brian, among others, before making the decision to leave UCLA.
“I talked to [Horan] and she has been super supportive and telling me, ‘do what you want to do,’” Pugh said. “She’s been super honest with things, which I love. She’s great friend of mine.”
Pugh did end up doing what she wanted, a process that was about gathering information as much as anything. She initially looked set to join the Portland Thorns in January 2016 before ultimately deciding to attend UCLA. Pugh then deferred enrollment in the fall to play in the U-20 World Cup and was on campus for less than a semester before deciding to turn professional.
Her latest decision ultimately came down to Washington or Europe. Gabarra made clear to the rest of the league the Spirit would not be trading the No. 1 spot in the Distribution Ranking Order, seeing no realistically equitable options for the player who could be the face of a franchise and national team for the next decade. After Gabarra flew to LA and back on a Spirit off day earlier this month to meet with Pugh, the prodigy had the information she needed.
Pugh’s constant smile provides a glimpse of Ronaldinho, and her potential for star power is undeniably Hamm-esque in an era when there is more attention than ever on women’s soccer. Anson Dorrance’s famous quote about Hamm’s work ethic (used in Hamm’s book) is that, “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.”
Everyone who cares about the sport will be watching Pugh.
“The stardom and the fan and the craze that Mia had,” Gabarra says of the similarities. “Always feeling like you’ve got to provide some kind of protection for them because it can be too much, and it can be a distraction to them. It’s not quite like that, but for me, it’s very similar.”
Pugh says she’s making sure to have fun through all the commitments. She trained with the Spirit for the first time on Tuesday and is expected to debut on Saturday. She spent Wednesday making the rounds calling national media outlets. And in between, she has been studying tactics as she tries to get up to speed with a team that has already played five games and is in need of help. Washington currently sits last after a 6-2 thrashing in Seattle last weekend.
Pressure, Pugh says, is something she internalizes, perhaps the blessing of being young and not yet being exposed to as much. She has already played and started in matches in the Olympics, a far larger stage than any the NWSL has to offer.
“I think for me, personally, I just try and not really think about what other people are thinking,” she said. “For yourself, it’s pressure you put on yourself.”
That individualism could define Pugh. Gabarra sees her as a blend of a playmaker and a winger for Washington. U.S. coach Jill Ellis has tried her in both roles over the past year.
“In my opinion, I think it’s best if she takes bits and pieces of all those players that she grew up emulating and sets her own style of who she is as a player.”
Pugh might be the next Hamm, a superstar on the field and off. She might be the next Heath, the United States’ best individual playmaker. But really, there’s a buzz around Pugh because she might just be the first Mallory Pugh.
Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.