Mallory Pugh lives up to the expectations of the US Women’s National Team.


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Opinion

Mallory Pugh collects the ball from Emily Fox in the second half early Saturday as the U.S. women’s national soccer team leads Nigeria by three goals in Kansas City.

The position and angle were right for a run, but if Pugh was in doubt to take on defender Nicole Payne, Megan Rapinoe erased it.

“Go to her! Go to her!” Rapinoe yelled off the field as the backups warmed up.

“I was like, ‘You’re right,'” Pugh recalled Sunday. “That gave me that extra little boost I needed. So kudos to Pino.

Payne charged in, broke into the box, then cut in down the left, with an upper body touch and a free kick to beat Alex Morgan to make it 4-0.

The USWNT roster features a friendly DC presence at Audi Field

Last year and maybe the year before, Pugh may not have had the confidence and technical polish to create the opportunity. The elusive talent who skipped NCAA football to join the Washington Spirit in 2017 admitted she lost her way once she was left out of the 2020-21 Olympic team.

This year, just 24 years old, Pugh has experienced a rebirth with the world’s top-ranked program. Heading into Tuesday’s second leg against Nigeria at Oddi Field, she is second with six goals and leads with seven assists.

If she scores again before April 29, she will become the sixth player in US history with 25 goals and 25 assists before the age of 25. The others are of national fame (Mia Hamm, Cindy Pallow Cohn, Kristin Lilly and Tiffany). Milbreth) or attributed to him (Morgan).

The left winger has 18 goals and 12 assists in 28 games this year, including her production for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“She is now what a lot of people expected her to be at 16, 17, 18,” said U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski.

The USMNT has an unstable World Cup roster. It’s a good thing.

Pugh is Andonovski’s top choice on the left wing, ahead of Rapinoe, who, at 37, has been influential but in small bites.

More than half of the U.S. team in Washington is between 22 and 26. Of that group, only Pugh has gone to the World Cup (2019) or the Olympics (2016). Her 79 international caps put her sixth on the current list; Her 24 goals put her behind only Morgan, Rapinoe and Lindsay Horan.

But there was a big break in Pugh’s career. After breaking onto the professional scene as America’s youngest Olympic scorer, she struggled.

“I feel a little lost,” she said. “It’s an evolution that has found my game. I have a feeling they’ll see a little hint early on. But now I feel the confidence and clarity gathered to know who I am on the field.

Wounds played a major role in the pug’s development. Whenever she tries to level up, stomach or hip pain, among other things, holds her back. Failing to perform at the highest level and falling short of expectations since her teenage years, she was traded to the NWSL twice and fell down the national team’s depth chart.

“Mal has had some tough times in her career, and as hard as it seems now, looking back it was actually a good time for her – a good time for her to regroup, start over and grow as a player and as a person. Andonovsky said. When she returned, she became mentally stronger and evolved.

Expectations weighed on Pugh, too.

“I don’t know how I felt at the time, but now going forward, there are little things that affect me,” she said of her jump to the NSL and the national team. “It affects everyone at that age. You have all these eyes on you. I started well, but the expectations are always so high.”

The low point was when Andonovski told her she would not be on the Tokyo Olympic team.

“It was completely fair,” Pugh said. “That’s it. [high] Standard of this group. But they never let me down either. It was a formal communication, which gave me a bit of confidence because it wasn’t like ‘Oh, I’m completely done with the national team’. Everyone knew I wasn’t doing well. I could get another chance. “

The opportunity came after a strong finish to the 2021 NWSL season, in which Pugh finished second in MVP voting to OL Reign Jess Fishlock and helped lead the Red Stars to the championship game. This year, Pugh is fourth in the league in goals (eight) and first in assists (five).

“Playing with her is what I prefer to play with,” said Fox of Ashburn, who plays left back for Team USA and the NewSL’s Louisville. “It means she was killing him.”

Pugh attributes the change in part to her mental coach, Armando Gonzalez, who was recommended by her fiancé, Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. She has been on regular video calls with Gonzalez for the past two years.

“I felt like my whole being was wrapped up in soccer,” she said. “Working with [Gonzalez]Instead of being hard on myself, it allowed me to take a deep breath and find my way.

Pugh says her life is more positive now. She and Swanson, who has several athletes among the 260 guests, will marry in Georgia in December, which is the season for both of them.

During the season, when they overlap in their sports, they find small gaps in the schedule to see each other. This weekend, their travel calendar adjusts in Seattle.

Next summer, barring an injury or a reduction in Pug’s performance, the pair will be separated for several weeks when the World Cup is held in Australia and New Zealand.

“I didn’t even look that far ahead,” she said. “It helps me a little bit because I’ve learned to look too far into the future, which makes me a little nervous. The feeling of confidence is different when I focus on what is in front of me. I now realize that I have completely found what I am doing and that I am exceptional in the field.

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