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Mallory Pugh scored 37 seconds after entering the game during an April exhibition against Australia in Commerce City. Photo credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Mallory Pugh Is a World Cup Away from Stardom

The Highlands Ranch 21-year-old has been the future of American soccer for almost a decade. This month's FIFA Women's World Cup in France is her best chance yet to turn prophecy into gospel.

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Around the time most of her former Mountain Vista High School classmates were moving into their freshman dorm rooms, Mallory Pugh was packing a suitcase full of too many snacks and not enough clothes and boarding a flight bound for Belo Horizonte, Brazil. There, inside the great concrete bulkheads of Estádio Mineirão, where her hero Ronaldinho wrung the last drip of glory from his career, Pugh’s was waiting to begin in earnest.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team won its first two matches of the 2016 Olympic Games, both in Belo Horizonte, then flew north almost 1,600 miles to Manaus for its third. A jungle metropolis, Manaus is a city of about two million buried in a billion acres of rainforest. It’s at once urban and exotic, home of the Amazon Theatre, an opulent opera house illuminated by 198 Italian crystal chandeliers, and moths larger than your hand that look as if they’ve come off the pages of an illustrated fairy-tale book.

The people, the atmosphere—it all thrilled Pugh. “Being able to say that you’re an Olympian?” she says. “That’s crazy.” Still, the teenager tried desperately to maintain a cool, been-here before demeanor in front of her older, more experienced teammates. This wasn’t a vacation. The Americans were in Brazil to win a fourth-straight Olympic gold medal. Even silver would be considered a failure.

Against Colombia in Manaus, Pugh, a forward, came on as a substitute in the 33rd minute. At the hour mark, she found herself in front of the opponent’s goal, the ball at her feet, surrounded by defenders: one behind, one to her left, and five between her and the goal. Seemingly trapped, the youngest American on the field dug her right cleat into the turf and swung her left foot. From about 10 yards away, the shot somehow flew between and around (maybe through?) the assembled Colombians, who spun to the ground like bowling pins as it passed. By the time the ball hit the back of the net, Pugh had became the youngest U.S. player, at 18, ever to score in the Olympics.

Colombia would come back to earn a draw, and in the first round of the knockout stage underdog Sweden bounced the Americans from the Rio de Janeiro Games. But the team’s upset exit didn’t obscure Pugh’s feat. Before the Olympics, the New Yorker wondered in a headline if she was “The Next Great American Soccer Star?Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla had christened Pugh “the next Mia Hamm,” a comparison that Teen Vogue happily repeated (alongside a Pugh tweet declaring her love for Drake). Hamm herself had already appeared to anoint the Highlands Ranch native as the second coming, tweeting, “Mallory Pugh is for real.”

Her Olympic goal solidified the perception of Pugh as the future of women’s soccer, not that she had thought about such sobriquets—or anything at all, really—when she kicked that ball. Following the game, she told a teammate she had no idea how it had found the net. “I just hit it as hard as I could,” Pugh told her. Like everything Pugh had accomplished up until then, that moment of greatness seemed simple. She had worked hard, yes, but her success was quickly gained. It was only when she flew back to America that everything got so complicated.

Two years, eight more U.S. goals, and a brief stopover at UCLA later, Pugh agreed to let me watch her work out at Sterling’s Team Speed, a facility for high-performance athletes in Centennial. The 20-year-old who steps through the gym’s back door at 8 a.m. looks too small to be so big-time. Pugh, dressed in black Nike gear, is a petite five-foot-four, save for a pair of piano leg quads. (I wouldn’t say that to her face, though: When her trainers tease that Pugh’s arms are getting swole, she shouts, “I’m not trying to look like a boy!” and sprints to a mirror.) She radiates an ingenue’s beauty, with large brown eyes, a guiltless smile, and a complexion made for Neutrogena commercials (you might’ve seen her ad for the company’s Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser if you are a regular viewer of The Bachelor).

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After rolling out her hamstrings, Pugh introduces herself. I’m sorry for crashing her workout, I say, but she waves my apology away. “It’s good you’re here,” she says. Maybe Sterling Joseph, her trainer, will show mercy if a witness is present.

“I’ll still get crazy,” he says. “I don’t care who’s here.”

“All right,” Pugh responds. “Let’s go.”

Today’s workout: rows, burpees, medicine ball slams, more burpees, dead lifts, wall sits, repeat. It’s December 2018, so technically Pugh is in her offseason; her professional club, Maryland’s Washington Spirit, ended its campaign in the fall. But, really, there is no offseason. U.S. Soccer designed this and most every exercise regimen Pugh does and remotely measures her progress through a heart rate monitor. Not that Pugh needs an overseer to keep herself accountable.

Pugh’s friends and family describe her as a goofball. Just yesterday, she uploaded an Instagram video of herself parked next to Lindsey Horan, another national team member from Colorado. Pugh motioned for Horan to lower her passenger window. When Horan complied, Pugh threw a banana peel into her friend’s car. Just because.

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But other than through her rare (by Gen Z standards, nearly nonexistent) social media posts, you likely won’t meet that Pugh. To outsiders, she’s an introvert who finds attention—whether it’s being approached at restaurants or talking with reporters—weird. “I’ve just never liked it,” Pugh says. “I would rather go out in the field and play.” Her natural state is a singular (some might say obsessive) devotion to soccer.

For example: After her workout, I notice a smudged stamp on her hand, the kind most people her age earn at a bar during a night of regrettable decisions. Pugh’s, however, was from a Boulder concert venue and certified that she was underage. Pugh rarely stays out late, often leaving mid-revelry to ensure she clocks nine to 10 hours of sleep. “We don’t get a lot of time to hang out anymore,” says Peyton Joseph, Pugh’s best friend (and Pugh’s trainer’s daughter). “It kind of sucks because our time is so short. But we know the bigger picture.”

That includes the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and its brushstrokes are the gradual, daily improvements Pugh believes she needs to make between now in Centennial and June 11 in Reims, France. “Sleeping. Nutrition. This—recovery,” Pugh says, motioning to the motorized compression sleeves massaging her legs. “If I’m the best recoverer there is, that’s going to benefit me on the field.” She wants to wake up every morning and be able to say, I’m better than I was yesterday. Not in a prophecy-fulfilling quest to become Hamm reincarnate. To become the first Mallory Pugh.

Many—including U.S. Soccer, the Washington Spirit, and a roster of endorsers that would comprise a heck of a blue-chip stock portfolio—have made their bets on who that Mallory Pugh will be. “I think she’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime generational players,” says Jim Gabarra, Pugh’s coach during her first two years with the Spirit. “I think that’s what a lot of other people see, too.”

Pugh isn’t so sure. “You don’t know if I’m the next whatever. You just don’t know,” Pugh says, later adding, “There’s always that doubt. What if I’m not good enough?” But she’s trying really hard not to worry about that today, 173 days before Pugh’s first World Cup match begins. “Because I don’t want to think about it,” Pugh says. “Your thoughts are very powerful, I’ve learned.”

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Horace and Karen Pugh dragged Mallory to her elder sister Bri’s soccer practices, giving her an early introduction to the game. Photo courtesy of the Pugh family.

Like most prodigies, Pugh didn’t have much choice in her calling. By the time she arrived in 1998, her older sister, Bri, who was five when Mallory was born, was committed to soccer, which means Pugh spent her first years at practices and matches with her parents, Horace and Karen. “She got dragged around everywhere like younger siblings do,” Bri says. “And all of us, we joke about it now. We’re like, ‘Great, we taught her everything we know, and she’s this superstar now and we’re working jobs.’ ”

Pugh took to soccer early because she wanted to emulate her sister and quickly became infatuated. At four or five years old, Pugh would watch soccer games on Telemundo via her 13-inch Hello Kitty TV. Later, she graduated to YouTube clips of Ronaldinho. The Brazilian’s style of play—his attitude, his flair, his defender-paralyzing feats of dribbling—inspired her. In winter, Horace had to move the cars from the garage into the driveway so his youngest could practice her footwork. To Karen’s dismay, the house’s interior walls were always dinged and grimy, besieged by soccer balls.

The prospect of no soccer seemed to hurt more than actual bodily injury. As kids, Pugh and Peyton used a rope on Horace’s bike rack in the garage to invent “the ultimate wedgie machine.” One end of the line tied to her pants, Pugh says she began wrenching herself up, but when the rope started burning her hands she instinctively let go—crashing to the floor and breaking her wrist. Pugh and Peyton belonged to Centennial-based club team Real Colorado, which was set to play in a regional tournament in the coming weeks. But Horace said Mal wouldn’t be able to play. After all, a bone was protruding from her wrist.

Hearing this, Pugh popped up, pushed the bone into place, and said, “Nope, I’m fine.” She wasn’t, but unrestrained begging got her permission to play in the tournament, where Jared Spires, Real’s chief operating officer, recalls Pugh scoring at least six goals in six games while wearing minimal protection on her wrist. The cast came once the games were done.

Soccer teams field 11 players who range over more than 7,000 square meters, which makes it difficult for a single person to dominate a match. But opponents’ strategies hinged on stopping Pugh. From an early age, she displayed not only pace, but pace while dribbling. “She seems to gain speed when she’s running with the ball,” says Lorne Donaldson, Real’s president and executive director of coaching. “That’s all the top players, they look like they’re faster. Messi, Ronaldo—they’re running with the ball and they look faster.” From the sidelines, coaches would scream, Surround her! Don’t let her start running! Make her play backwards! “And if it got harsh, and this happened to her a lot when she started getting older,” Donaldson says, “then they would try and foul her every time. Just try and hit her.” At least once, the result was nearly career-ending.

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During a tournament in Arizona when she was in high school, Pugh was on a breakaway when a late tackle sent her sprawling to the turf. At some point during the crash, Pugh’s femur, the biggest bone in her tiny body, snapped. “It was the worst thing ever,” Peyton says, “because no one screams like that, you know?” At first, Donaldson thought Pugh’s kneecap had ruptured; the break was so extensive her femur was bulging from the side of her knee. “It was bad,” Donaldson says. “We didn’t think she was coming back from it.” Seven months after the injury, she was not only playing, Spires says, but she also notched five goals during the first game of a national tournament.

Perhaps more impressive than Real Colorado’s trophy case of state, regional, and national titles (they’ve lost count, by the way) are the hundreds of alumni who have played college soccer. Bri, for instance, was an all-conference honorable mention at the University of Oregon. But Pugh is the club’s first U.S. women’s senior team star. “I feel like growing up, what they always said was, All the extra work you put in, that’s what’s going to make you different, that’s what’s going to set you apart. You’re kind of like, OK, sure,” Bri says. “Well, now I totally agree with that statement. Because me, I wasn’t the type to do extra stuff, like after practice or on a random day. That wasn’t me. And like I said, I was a good player. I was a very, very good player. Mal was—I say obsessed. She will probably read that like, Bri? Really? You’re saying I’m obsessed with soccer? I’m not meaning it like soccer is her whole life. It’s not that…. It’s almost like so pleasing to her well-being that she just goes beyond even the beyond.”

In 2011, Real Colorado’s coaches decided it was time U.S. Soccer got a look at their star pupil. So even though she was a year younger than most of the team, Real added her to its 14-and-under squad and decamped for a tournament in Oregon. Smaller than her opponents, Pugh played cautiously during the first half. “Then finally I said to her, ‘Listen, we need to win the game. Just go play and do your thing,’ ” Donaldson says. She scored three goals and recorded two assists during the second half, according to Horace.

Months later, Pugh was invited to the U.S. Soccer U-14 Girls Identification Camp. When Pugh turned 14, she earned a spot with the under-17 team; at 15, she played for the under-20 squad. “She’d be gone for two or three weeks several times a year,” Karen says. “She’d miss out on school events or games or stuff like that.”

Pugh led Mountain Vista to a state championship her freshman year, then mostly stopped playing high school soccer to prioritize the national team and avoid injury. “She sacrificed a lot, actually,” Karen says. “But she knew what the deal was.”

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No one was surprised, then, when Pugh made the 2016 Olympic squad—perhaps Pugh less than anyone. She’d already debuted for the United States that January (at 17, the youngest to do so in 11 years) and introduced herself with three goals and a team-best seven assists in her first 14 games. After a July match in Chicago, while waiting on the tarmac to return to Denver, Pugh got a call from U.S. Soccer. Upon hearing the news that she had been named to the Olympic roster, Pugh slipped on her headphones, pulled up her hoodie, and took a nap.

The top recruit in the country in high school, Pugh picked UCLA for college. “I felt like a kid,” says UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell, recalling her excitement when Pugh committed. But after returning from Brazil, Pugh postponed enrollment, deciding instead to play in the FIFA U-20 World Cup that November. When Pugh finally arrived in Los Angeles, the reality of being a full-time student set in. She returned to Colorado after the spring semester, and Donaldson evaluated her form. “In my terms, it was shitty,” he says. “And she said, ‘OK, I know that. What can I do?’  ”

Option A: Remain at UCLA. After all, she’d made a commitment to Cromwell. “She doesn’t like letting anybody down,” Donaldson says. Then again, the competition in college wouldn’t be as strong as she was used to playing against on the international level, meaning her form might falter further—and she could lose her place on the national team. “Any slippage from Mal,” Donaldson says, “you’re out and somebody takes your spot.”

Option B: Turn pro.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of being on the national team. Most female professional soccer players earn a paltry wage: The National Women’s Soccer League’s max salary is $46,200. Its minimum is $16,538. However, for each season, U.S. Soccer designates up to 24 “allocated” players, whose salaries the federation pays out of its own pocket. These athletes earn at least $200,000. Then there’s the notoriety attached to the national team. American stalwarts sign lucrative shoe contracts that include bonuses for winning World Cups. Star striker Alex Morgan has her own series of young-adult books. Who can forget Hamm’s ear-wormy “Anything You Can Do” Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan?

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Cromwell could see her star recruit being pulled in different directions: “It’s hard when you’re on the national team, because even though the coaches aren’t outright pressuring you, they have their ideas about what you should be doing. They have their own motives. They want to have the best team possible.”

While wrestling over whether to stay or leave, Pugh had a dream. She was inside a massive arena, one she had never seen before. The place was empty and dark, save for a single light that illuminated her walk from the tunnel to the field. Naturally, she interpreted the vision as a revelation to turn pro. In April 2017, Pugh picked option B. “I wanted to be on the national team, and I wanted to be a professional soccer player,” Pugh says. “I think, for me, putting myself in the most difficult environment would help me get to those places.

It’s safe to say the arena of her dreams was not the Maryland SoccerPlex, home of the Washington Spirit. Located in Germantown, Maryland, the SoccerPlex resides about an hour away from both D.C. and Baltimore. The facility features an excellent natural grass playing surface but no actual seats, only metal bleachers. Although they recently got an upgrade, back then the locker rooms were inside a multipurpose facility, which players shared with public volleyball and basketball courts. After former men’s national team player DaMarcus Beasley played at the SoccerPlex, he tweeted, “From the locker room to the ‘training’ room (which was jus an area blocked by curtains next to the vending machines) kids volleyball goin on, it was a circus.” In 2018, members of the Spirit toured the new stadium of the MLS’ D.C. United. One player remarked that “ ‘this locker room looked like there were never going to be frogs getting into it,’ ” says Jason Anderson, a reporter for Washington soccer website Black and Red United. “So apparently at some point, frogs got into the SoccerPlex locker room.”

The Spirit has had some success in the National Women’s Soccer League, including three straight playoff appearances from 2014 to 2016. But in 2016, the team traded away its stars; Anderson says there were rumors of discontent between players and management. The transactions that scalped the Spirit’s lineup, however, also netted the team the first pick of U.S. Soccer allocated players—just as Pugh turned pro. “When she made that decision, yeah, we were really excited,” says Gabarra, the Spirit’s coach at the time. The club held a rare press conference to introduce Pugh, and the Lifetime network broadcast her first match. “And, you know, up until that point, the Spirit hadn’t really had too many ‘events’ at home,” Anderson says. Gabarra believed he had found the foundation upon which to rebuild the Spirit’s roster.

Nineteen-year-old Pugh, meanwhile, found herself 1,500 miles from home in a one-bedroom apartment in Rockville, Maryland, alone with her IKEA furniture. “The first month with the Spirit, I was like, Oh my gosh, what have I done?” Pugh says. D.C. finished last that season, but Pugh recorded six goals, the most on the team. Off the field, though, she was surrounded by fans yet desperately lonely. In hindsight, Donaldson says someone from Pugh’s inner circle should have relocated to Maryland with her. “Instead,” he says, “she goes there, she’s by herself, she’s known, people want your autograph.”

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Fortunately, her personal life got better the following season, when friends and fellow U.S. national team youngsters Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan joined the Spirit and the trio became roommates. Pugh’s performance, though, failed to improve. Part of her struggles stemmed from a knee injury she sustained during a May match that cost her two months of the season. Still, she scored twice in her first three games, and not again over her next 12. The team finished second to last.

Everyone seems to have a theory about why Pugh and Washington have floundered together. Anderson blames Gabarra’s methodical tactics, which didn’t take advantage of Pugh’s speed. Gabarra blames injuries to Pugh and Lavelle. The players blame the facilities. “I think it was honestly people not wanting to be there because they see other teams have better things,” Pugh says. “I don’t think the overall culture was necessarily good.”

What many seem to agree on is that Pugh’s game—which was supposed to flourish against professional competition—stalled in Washington. “I don’t think she was necessarily ready to put a team on her shoulders and carry them, where maybe after staying a couple of years in college, she would be ready,” Cromwell says. “Society wants things on its timeline and wants her to be the best player in the world right now. Well, it doesn’t necessarily work like that. You have to account for some injuries, and maybe her development didn’t happen by going pro.”

Plenty of teams would surely love to add Pugh’s talent to their lineups. The Portland Thorns, for example, considered the New York Yankees of the National Women’s Soccer League, made a push for Pugh when she went pro. There are rumors that French teams Paris Saint-Germain FC and Olympique Lyonnais inquired after her services, too. When I ask if Pugh wants to leave Washington (which, we should note, has a new owner who upgraded the facilities and added more support staff), she doesn’t entirely dismiss the idea, responding: “I’m just focused on the World Cup.”

Could Mallory Pugh become the best soccer player the U.S. has ever produced? Photo credit: Trunk Archive.

Midway through the second half, a murmur begins behind the team’s bench. The din gradually builds to a roar, fanning around the stadium as recognition spreads: Mallory Pugh is shedding her warmups and approaching the field. The fans erupt when she trots onto the pitch—vibrant red uniform, orange cleats, ponytail swishing—and don’t have time to regain their composure before, 37 seconds later, Pugh sprints in from the right, shoots to the left, and collects what turns out to be the game-winning goal.

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The national team is at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City this April evening to play Australia as part of a string of World Cup tuneup exhibitions. Most of the 17,264 people here will likely remember the night because a local kid scored in record time. Pugh, though, will recall her next goal more fondly. At first glance, her second of the game seems inconsequential. It happens during the last minute of the match (with the Americans already up a goal), after the U.S. keeper launches a kick deep into the opponent’s side of the field. Pugh outruns the Australian defenders to the ball and flicks it over the keeper’s head. Simple—except, not at all.

While Pugh recovered from her injury and subpar form in 2018, the national team was, to use Pugh’s word, “beautiful.” The Americans didn’t lose a single game that year. At the qualifying tournament for the World Cup, the U.S. side beat its first three opponents by a combined score of 18-0. The next game, the Yanks thumped Jamaica 6-0 to clinch a berth in France.

Pugh played a little in the first three matches but didn’t even see the field against Jamaica. Back in Colorado, Pugh talked to Donaldson. “She didn’t blame anybody,” Donaldson says. “She didn’t say the coaches, nothing like that. She just said, ‘I have to be better. I have to be better. I wasn’t good enough.’ She said, ‘I can’t let my guard down. I’ve got to be ready at all times.’ ”

We’ll spare you the Rocky IV montage of Pugh’s training over the subsequent offseason. Suffice it to say, she worked out with Sterling, practiced against men to quicken her reactions, stuck to her nutrition plan, and got plenty of sleep. Slowly, her game seemed to regain its ascendancy. There was a pinpoint pass to set up a score against Scotland in late 2018. In January, she whirled through the French defense to register the Americans’ sole goal. Her second against Australia in Commerce City? Pugh worked and worked and worked to perfect that light, lobbed touch over the keeper. “I think I have definitely gotten better,” Pugh says.

That’s not just good news for her. On the women’s side, U.S. Soccer has enjoyed global domination over the past two decades, but the competition is getting better. At the 2016 Olympics, the Americans finished off the podium for the first time ever. France dominated that January exhibition. During the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, the U.S. federation’s own international tournament, the national team registered a pair of draws and a slim win over a floundering Brazil.

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“The teams we’re playing are so much better,” says veteran forward Megan Rapinoe. “In the past we probably felt more confident, but we hadn’t really been playing very good teams.” The energy that Pugh can inject into the American side will be essential to the U.S. effort in France. “That has to be her role in the World Cup,” Rapinoe says, “and that’s going to be huge for us—her coming off the bench and being that spark.”

Pugh understands the gravity of the World Cup. Back in December, she’d gushed about her time as an Olympian. She’d started to say that no experience could match it—then stopped mid-sentence. “No, there’s definitely things that could come up to that.”

The World Cup? I asked.

“The World Cup, yeah.”

Does that give you more motivation?

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“I’ve had three years to get better. And I still have time.”

But time’s run out. It’s now June, and the World Cup looms just days away. The past (the workouts, the drills, the recovery) is the past. The future (and whomever this woman becomes) is the future. For Mallory Pugh, the Highlands Ranch 21-year-old who’s been ordained for greatness for a decade, the present begins now.

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