Goal USA Podcast: USWNT star Mallory Pugh forging unprecedented path through NWSL

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The 19-year-old has completed her rookie season with the Washington Spirit after becoming the first player to bypass college in favor of the NWSL

BOYDS, Md. — The resume Mallory Pugh compiled before kicking a single ball as a professional would be considered a career well spent by most players' standards.

At 19 years old, she already had 22 caps and four goals for the U.S. national team. Pugh also could claim the elusive title of "Olympian," having made two starts at Rio 2016 — becoming the youngest American to score in the Summer Games. And she represented her country at a pair of U-20 World Cup tournaments.

Yet when Pugh signed with the Washington Spirit in May, she found herself humbled by the professional ranks all the same.

"I expected it was going to be super competitive and, as far as the game goes, it was going to be a lot more fast paced," Pugh told the Goal USA podcast. "I remember my first training and I was like, 'Whoa, my touch — it's really not good whatsoever.'"

That fell in line with the mindset of Spirit coach Jim Gabarra. Speaking at Pugh's introduction to the media in May, he was quick to temper expectations for a player who immediately took on "face of the franchise" status. Washington had parted ways with U.S. internationals Crystal Dunn and Ali Krieger the previous winter, after all, leaving a thirst for a ready-made savior.

"It's important that we let Mal enjoy the process and really be free to learn and develop," he said, "and not say she's coming in here to lift this team up."

While the Spirit endured a rough campaign, finishing last in the NWSL with a 5-15-4 record, Pugh netted six goals in 16 matches to claim team MVP and Golden Boot honors. She also earned a spot on the NWSL Rookie of the Year shortlist, finishing behind NC Courage forward Ashley Hatch.

With a professional campaign under her belt, Pugh understands she's still very much an unfinished product — particularly when it comes to her speed of play. But there's no downplaying the concoction of pure pace and soccer IQ that makes her a potentially transcendent talent. Although Pugh may not lend much credence to outside pressure, she also understands she's aiming for a raised bar.

"I have expectations on myself, and I think that's really the only expectations I should put on myself," Pugh said. "I have to remember I am young, this is my rookie season, so I think it was a great learning experience for me and that's kind of the biggest thing I took out of it."

As the U.S. slowly builds toward defending its World Cup title in 2019, Pugh has become a centerpiece in coach Jill Ellis' ever-evolving squad — starting eight of 11 caps in 2017.

After a disappointing quarterfinal finish at the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. has gone 10-3-0 in 2017 entering a pair of friendlies against South Korea on Thursday in New Orleans and Sunday in Cary, North Carolina. But the Americans fell short in two events on home soil featuring top opposition, watching France win the SheBelieves Cup in March before finishing behind Australia at this summer's Tournament of Nations.

Although the results have been disappointing at times, Pugh recognizes the value in incorporating fresh talent — such as breakout newcomers Abby Dahlkemper, Taylor Smith and Rose Lavelle — while cycling through new tactical approaches. For a player who credits the 2016 SheBelieves Cup with hastening her development, any opportunity to grow against world-class opposition is embraced.

"It's definitely, you can say, just a test year for us, a transition year," Pugh said. "I think we're just experiencing a lot of different things and experimenting different players, different formations, and I think the main thing that's really helped us so much is just playing these top opponents and really putting ourselves to the test."

It was less than two years ago that Pugh was in her first camp with the U.S., simply trying to keep her head low and relish the occasion. Now she's an established regular poised to represent her country at the 2019 World Cup in France.

She has experienced a similarly swift trajectory on the club level, dating back to that sluggish debut training session with the Spirit in May. While getting used to a fast-paced life on the East Coast has proven tricky for the Colorado native off the field, she's quickly found her voice with the Spirit.

"I remember my first time with this team I was so quiet," Pugh said, "and now I'm loud and comfortable with everyone."

When she arrived, her resume spoke for itself. At this point, it doesn't have to.

Check out the full episode of the Goal USA podcast above as Pugh discusses her roots in soccer, her whirlwind introduction to the U.S. national team and the only movie franchise that grabs her attention.

To find all of our episodes, subscribe on SoundCloud and iTunes.

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