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2016 Rio Olympics

USWNT things learned: Mallory Pugh’s future is now

Mallory Pugh, 18, is showing she's ready for the big stage. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Mallory Pugh, 18, is showing she’s ready for the big stage. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Here’s one of many scary tidbits involving Mallory Pugh and her seemingly limitless future at the moment: When she takes the field in France three years from now at the 2019 World Cup opener, she will become the youngest American to play in that tournament since Cindy Parlow in 1999 (who will only have beat her out by a couple of weeks).

While, yes, Anson Dorrance brought teenagers Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Julie Foudy along for some of the early, largely anonymous days of the U.S. national team, it’s been a long time since someone as young as Pugh has made their mark at this level with the USWNT. Parlow was also the last 18-year-old to make the roster of a major tournament (1996 Olympics), but did not play a major role. Likewise, Heather O’Reilly was on the 2004 Olympic roster at 19, with Tobin Heath and Lauren Cheney making the 2008 team at age 20, but none of those three was a starter.

Even as the star of Friday night’s impressive 4-0 win over Costa Rica, Pugh is not guaranteed a starting spot when the U.S. opens Olympic play, as Tobin Heath – perhaps the NWSL MVP of the early season – came in with a minor injury (eventually replacing Pugh late) and Crystal Dunn is pretty darn good on the other side of the field. But there’s little doubt that Pugh will play some kind of major role in Brazil.

She’d better, really. It took only a minute Friday for her to begin her assault on Costa Rica’s right side, and it was largely continuous for 78 minutes on an oppressively hot night in Kansas City. She now has 14 caps and three international goals and should have enough experience. Will the bright lights of her first major tournament bother an 18-year-old? Possible, but doesn’t seem likely.

[MORE: Pugh defers enrollment at UCLA until 2017 due to U.S. commitments]

Pugh has great speed, but there are a lot of young players with great speed. But she has what someone who would know called “technical speed,” the ability to glide along with the ball and be in complete control when an opponent comes for it. The game clearly “slows down” for her at that point, and she seems to rarely give the ball away or make a poor decision. Good luck to the U-20s in Papua New Guinea this fall and potential future college opponents trying to stop her, by the way.

All this is not to say her spot as a U.S. star for the next decade or two is assured. She has room to improve (don’t we all?) and the future is all too uncertain (Parlow had an amazing career, but did have to retire at 28 because of post-concussion syndrome). For now, though, Mallory Pugh is ready to be a star at as high a level as women’s soccer can bring. And soon.

One play Friday stands out to me about Pugh’s awareness that co-exist with her natural physical gifts. Early in the second half, Allie Long slid a through ball intended for Christen Press, but Press was in an offside position. Pugh (who was onside) immediately saw what was happening and raced to pounce on it, trying to get Press to ignore it. Alas, Press didn’t get the message until it was too late, went after the ball, and what could have been another Pugh goal would have to wait.

Likely not for long.

What else did we learn Friday in Kansas City?:

1) The U.S. appears light years ahead of last year’s form at this time

With the eventual title, it’s easy to forget that the USWNT virtually limped into the World Cup last year without much of an identity, then were outplayed by Australia for much of the opener, were fairly lucky to escape with a draw against Sweden, and beat Nigeria only 1-0 in the group stages. While surely France will give a stern test, it would be extremely surprising if the U.S. had as much of a problem in the group as they did last summer.

[NWSL Week In Review: Flash show they are near top to stay]

Yes, it’s possible that a bunkering New Zealand or Colombia could stymie the U.S. because such is the nature of the sport. But at this point, it doesn’t look likely. What about Germany (who scored nine goals in the first half of a friendly against Ghana Friday) or some other contenders? Well, that might be a little tougher to gauge.

2) Allie Long is your likely starter against New Zealand

For all the jokes about Jill Ellis not taking NWSL form into account, her decision to leave Long in the lineup over Morgan Brian is a statement that she has indeed been paying attention. Brian’s play, some of it due to a nagging hamstring injury, has been poor for Houston, while Long was one of the key cogs in Portland’s 12-game unbeaten run to start the season, and she has taken advantage of her USWNT opportunities in 2016 as well.

As I’ve said before, the question will come in the big games against teams that can compete technically with the U.S. and Ellis might want a defensive presence in her midfield. But even then, of the people on the roster, Long may be that person.

3) Defending Dunn, Pugh, Heath, Rapinoe et al

To Costa Rica’s credit, they did not set up with their entire team behind the ball Friday. But their performance also shows why teams do. With Pugh and Dunn isolated 1-v-1 against their respective outside backs, it was not a contest, and Costa Rica sorely needed to double-team the wings who kept putting the ball in dangerous positions (and scoring, of course). Obviously, this would take away from your ability to actually attack at the other end, but you have to pick your poison.

[MORE: Breakers trade McCaffrey to Red Stars – who had traded her to Breakers]

New Zealand will likely open in a 4-4-2-ish lineup, which will allow them to double the wings at the possible expense of leaving the middle for people like Long to fill in open holes and sneak into the box. But we shall see.

4) High-pressing

It was a little difficult because of conditions, but you can see how committed this U.S. women’s team is to high pressing these days. Anytime Costa Rica tried to make a pass in their own half, immediately at least eight U.S. players would be with them and several times forced mistakes that led directly to an American attack.

As I’ve pointed out a couple times already here, the main issue will come in the knockout rounds (probably semis and finals) and against France. If those teams can play through the pressure (and France has not been able to consistently in previous meetings), it could create opportunities at the other end. But maybe not.

5) Hat tip to Costa Rica

Yeah, they were outclassed in almost every way in this game, but consider that back in 2006, Costa Rica didn’t even qualify for the Gold Cup, falling to Panama and Guatemala. But the federation at least put a couple of bucks into their women’s program, and the result was a remarkable 2014 run in that same tournament that saw them beat Mexico on the way to the finals.

Last year, they were extremely competitive at the World Cup under new coach Amelia Valverde, and while catching the U.S. and Canada is probably impossible given so many handicaps that the face, getting back to the World Cup in 2019 is certainly within their reach if they can keep it together.

[MORE: One year later, Raquel Rodriguez reflects on World Cup]

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