Hamm, Lilly: 'Sophisticated' Pugh the future of USWNT

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

USWNT legends Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly see 18-year-old Mallory Pugh as the future. Tim Nash caught up with Hamm and Lilly to discuss Pugh and youth development.

The young woman from the TV news wants to get one last piece of footage. Even if it never appears on the news, it will be a pretty cool keepsake for her. She approaches Mia Hamm with her request, “Do you think you could juggle with me, just for 20 seconds, on camera?”

“I guess we are about to find out,” laughs Hamm, now 44 years old, the mother of three and 12 years removed from her last competitive game. But only one take is needed to capture 20 seconds of a game of keepy-uppy, and Hamm can take some time to talk about the development of women’s soccer. None of what she said begins with “Back in my day,” and never is there a comparison between now and then.

Hamm, of course, has an interest in where the game is and where it seems to be going. And she earned it. Back in the day, back when the U.S. women were still somewhat obscure, back when media attention was relatively scant, Hamm was the one counted on to spread the word, fill the seats and score the goals.

“She carries the weight of the sport on her shoulders, there’s no question,” said Julie Foudy in the new book, “It’s Not the Glory”, which chronicles the first 30 years of the women’s national team. “And not only does she carry it, but she’s carried it for how many years now? That’s exhausting. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be her. I don’t know how she does it?”

That’s all behind Hamm now. Others have picked up the microphones and become effective evangelists for the sport. Hamm is left to simply enjoy her sport, and one of the ways she does that is by working with the next generation of players at the grass roots level. And when we say grassroots, we mean the very roots of the grass, some of which are still in the dirt.

Together, with former United States and North Carolina teammates Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini-Hoch, Hamm gives clinics, often in out-of-the-way locations, under the banner of the Team First Soccer Academy.

She’s in Martinsville, Va., today, and as long as she is on the subject of the next generation, you have to wonder: What about this Mallory Pugh kid? Pugh is 18. She plays for the full national team. And to date, she has proven, at the very minimum, that she belongs. She will almost certainly be headed to the Olympics this summer.

What’s really fun with Mallory is you can see her making adjustments from game to game. That’s another part of what makes her so great."

- Mia Hamm

“You know, you see a lot of young, athletic players, but she’s is so sophisticated,” Hamm says. “What is so fun about Mallory Pugh, and Lindsay Horan, too, is their knowledge. Their touches have purpose and understanding, and a lot of times that takes years of experience. What’s really fun with Mallory is you can see her making adjustments from game to game. That’s another part of what makes her so great.

“A lot times, when you are at that age, you are thinking ‘Well, I’ve played this way and it’s worked so far. They have to adjust to me.’ No, you have to understand that in international soccer, you get so many different looks because cultures are so different and the way they develop their game is very different -- from a Brazil to a Germany to a Japan to a Norway. You have to be able to adjust and figure out how to beat a defense. She seems to have the knowledge and capacity to do it and she seems open to doing it. Then, technically, she can make all those adjustments.”

Lilly, now 45, made more international appearances than any other man or women -- a lot more. She played for the U.S. 352 times over 23 years. She has seen players come and go -- great ones, ones with unfulfilled promise and mediocre ones.

“Mallory, she’s got some talent. She’s got the speed, the skill,” Lilly says. “She’s going to be the next player. Hopefully, all the young players realize that they have to continue. They really have to push themselves to get better.”

Coming out of high school, Pugh had choices, nice choices. Take a full-ride scholarship to, well, just about anywhere; go to Europe and play professionally; or stay home and play professionally. After reportedly looking destined to play for Portland Thorns FC, Pugh ultimately chose to go to UCLA after she competes in the Olympics, if she makes the team, which is looking increasingly likely.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To Hamm and Lilly, the sheer fact that Pugh had choices, is tremendous.

“There was no one knocking on my door saying, ‘You don’t want to go to college. You can come play professionally in Europe,” says Hamm, laughing at the thought.

“The access to the game is so much greater today. We have had men’s and women’s national team games in the last couple of days, we have Copa America, MLS games, NWSL games, the Euros are getting ready to start, and then the Olympics. These kids are going to have a summer filled with soccer on TV. That’s so great for our game and the development of these players.”

Headed in the right direction?

That starts a whole other conversation, doesn’t it? Does the emergence of players with all the qualities and sophistication mentioned above, combined with better coaching and increased access to high levels of play, point to a solid player development environment on the women’s side?

“I think we are a lot further along than we were, and I want to continue to keep that going,” says Hamm, who is co-owner of upcoming MLS expansion team LAFC and on the board of directors for A.S. Roma. “You know, whoever was part of Mallory Pugh’s development really thought about her. I think sometimes we get so focused on making sure my club is ranked No. 1, rather than making sure the players are developed the best way they can be and put in the best environment to succeed.

You know, whoever was part of Mallory Pugh’s development really thought about her. I think sometimes we get so focused on making sure my club is ranked No. 1, rather than making sure the players are developed the best way they can be and put in the best environment to succeed."

- Mia Hamm

“In Europe, they believe in developing the individual,” she adds, recalling a trip she made to Spain at the invitation of FC Barcelona. “Barcelona is not concerned about winning the U-12 Spanish Cup. But they want to make sure that someday one of those U-12 players is playing for the full team. They are figuring out ways to help those players develop.

“One of the things I was so impressed with is that when we were standing around talking to their technical director and one of their youth teams came off the field, I think it was their U-12 boys,” she says. “Every boy who came off the field, came over one by one, shook the technical director’s hand, then shook our hands and thanked us for being there. The technical director said, ‘You know, that is one of the most important things I do here, getting them to be good people and solid citizens and that this matters just as much as what they do on the field.’ And you can see that in how they play.”

When Hamm and Lilly retired, it was very important to them to leave the women’s game in a better place. They treated the game as they treated their own development – get better at every opportunity.

“I think when we left the game, we left it in a better place,” says Lilly. “Hopefully, it impacted the younger people to do the same. They are coming into an environment that is totally different than when we started with the national team. Their expectations and lifestyles are a different, but the game is not different. The game has grown, but why you play it and the fact that you want to be the best in the world is still the same. Hopefully, that mentality will stay with the national team.

I heard on TV that when Mallory Pugh was growing up, she always heard about the USA mentality. When she joined the national team, she understood it. It’s one of those things you can’t really understand until you are in it."

- Kristine Lilly

“I heard on TV that when Mallory Pugh was growing up, she always heard about the USA mentality. When she joined the national team, she understood it. It’s one of those things you can’t really understand until you are in it.”

Hamm points to the players’ recent public campaign for equal treatment as a sign that the current national team is thinking of future generations as well as the present situation.

“I think we always have to find ways to get better, and I think that’s what’s happening now,” she says. “It is time, not just with their wages, but in terms of investment in the game. U.S. Soccer, of all the federations, does a tremendous job, but we should all be looking at ways we can improve, so I definitely stand with the players in their fight to raise the level for everyone. It’s not just for them. It for these kids out there (at the clinic), and making sure youth national teams are funded, and that we get the best national team coaches we can.

“Right now, the job security is in collegiate or club soccer. Not that the national team coach should have a lot of job security, but we have to make sure our best coaches are looking at the national team job saying, ‘That’s where I want to be.’”

Right now, where Hamm wants to be is back out on the field, defending a 10-year-old in a 1-v-1 battle and talking to a 12-year-old about balance and technique.

“These kids are worth it,” she says. ‘I think sharing what we love about the game and our knowledge might give confidence to one young player and that’s important. To see development at every level is tremendous.”

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Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” To order a copy, click here