When phenoms take flight: What should we expect from Mallory Pugh in NWSL?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

She's one of the top teenagers in women's soccer history. But measuring her as a pro is harder than it looks.

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On first glance, Mallory Pugh has had no trouble assimilating into the NWSL.

At 19 years old, she is one of the youngest players in the league, but the experience she had accumulated over a year’s time with the U.S. women’s national team gave her more high-level experience than most. With every touch, every run, every decision to take on defenders, the would-be UCLA Bruin has shown herself a level above the competition.

The statistical record, though, tells a slightly different story. Through 14 games with the Washington Spirit, Pugh has four goals, though one was from the penalty spot. In open play, that’s a goal every 341 minutes.

Her overall goal rate ranks 29th out of the 60 NWSL players Opta classifies as forwards, while her assist rate (having recorded one this season) ranks 32nd.

There is something to be said here about merging the eye- and numbers-tests — Pugh is certainly better than a 50th-percentile attacker in the NWSL — but the overall picture paints one at odds with expectations.

Although her long layoff from competitive play may be a part of her production (electing not to play collegiately during her only year at UCLA due to the U-20 World Cup), ultimately, attackers have to produce. And to this point, Pugh’s production hasn’t matched the hype.

To date, this isn’t a player who, during that nebulous period between college and pro, some said the Portland Thorns should trade major assets to obtain. That was when it looked like Pugh was angling for Portland, when leaving for Paris-Saint Germain was a major threat. Instead, this is a 19-year-old phenom who, understandably, has seen expectations tempered during her first months playing against professionals.

This, perhaps, is what we should have expected all along.

A case of expectations

It can not be stressed enough, though, how much better Pugh looks than her numbers. With every moment on the ball, flashing a near-unparalleled speed of movement and thought, Pugh reminds us why Jill Ellis and the U.S. women’s national team sought to accelerate her development.

But then, that’s what objective standards are for. Your eyes may see a player that looks the part you’ve constructed in your mind, but if the production isn’t there, what good is your construct?

Still, as every Washington match approaches its final half-hour, and Pugh seems to hit a new level, one that separates her from the other 21 players on the field, you can’t help but wonder what experience will yield, how she’ll thrive when Washington can draw attention from her, and what damage the fully-matured, Platonic ideal of Mallory Pugh can do to the soccer world.

"I honestly didn’t really have any concerns, but I knew it was going to be challenging,” Pugh said, earlier this season about her transition to the NWSL. "It’s very competitive, and it’s a great learning opportunity, and it’s a great area to grow in.

"It’s just continuing to get games under me and meshing with the team. Just seeing how competitive these games are, and just kind of adapting to it has really helped me and it’s helping me grow.”

They’re modest goals from an athlete who, in her time on the microphone, casts a modest pose. When you break into the national team at 17, though, it’s hard for the conversation around you to show the same restraint.

When she was called into senior camp in January 2016, she was one of the youngest field players in a U.S. squad in the last 15 years, joining the likes of Lauren Holiday, Heather O’Reilly and Amy Rodriguez as pre-college standouts.

NEXT: Pugh in the wider context of a USWNT youth movement