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'It was like a transformation' - Rejuvenated Pugh earns another chance to become a USWNT star

11:00 AM EDT 9/16/21
Mallory Pugh Chicago Red Stars NWSL 2021
The 23-year-old has already had a career's worth of ups and downs, but she's now healthy and firing once more thanks to a move to Chicago Red Stars

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how young Mallory Pugh is. In fact, she even does it herself.

“I don't feel young!” Pugh said with a laugh this week. “I had to remind myself that I am young and I still have a lot of years ahead of me.”

It’s not difficult to see how Pugh, at 23, has taken on the outlook of a grizzled veteran. 

She was a national team player at 17, an Olympic goalscorer at 18 and a World Cup champion at 21. But somewhere along that skyrocketing trajectory, Pugh lost her way.

Her role with the U.S. women’s national team diminished and then vanished entirely, to the point where she wasn’t even in the discussion for an Olympic roster spot this summer. On the club level, she was traded twice within the span of a year.

But it was that second trade – to the Chicago Red Stars in December of last year – that seems to have reinvigorated the former phenom.

“Over my club career, it's been a little uneasy,” Pugh admitted. “I finally think I found Chicago to be a place where I can express how I want to play. 

“It was very beneficial for me after coming off some injuries. I needed to find my form again and, thankfully, I was able to do that in Chicago.”

Pugh has three goals and three assists in 2021, and she is in the top five in the NWSL in chances created and total shots. Perhaps most importantly, after struggling with injuries in recent years, she’s played 18 of Chicago’s 19 games.

It’s been a welcome return to form for a player who admits she recognized she had reached something of a career crossroads.

“I don't know if I would necessarily say I sat down and was like, ‘OK I want to turn this around’, but I definitely recognized some issues that I was having,” Pugh explained. “Whether that was on the field or off the field, it was kind of like a transformation.”

That transformation did not entail becoming a new player. Instead, it was about recapturing what made Pugh such a highly regarded young talent in the first place. 

“I felt like I needed to see what was important to me and just feel like my old self again, playing freely and with no stress, because when I first got on the national team, that's what I did and it worked out.”

Playing freely in Chicago has now earned Pugh another chance to prove herself with the national team.

She was called in for the team’s two friendlies this month against Paraguay, serving as an injury replacement on a roster that was originally intended to be the same as the Olympic squad.

“What’s very important for Mallory [is] she’s been healthy for a long period of time now,” said U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski. 

“[That] has allowed her to play, and that’s very important for us. She’s played well, her performance is what made us call her back in camp.

"When Mallory is performing well and staying healthy, and she’s performing well on a consistent basis, she’s going to be a very important piece of this puzzle.”

As the team looks for an infusion of new blood after a disappointing Olympic showing, Pugh is well positioned to establish herself as a stalwart as the U.S. looks toward the World Cup in 2023.

At that tournament, Pugh will still be just 25. Hard to believe, isn’t it?