USWNT things learned: Mallory Pugh’s future is now

Ray Curren July 23, 2016 44
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]

  • newsouth

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

    did rapinoe play, i miss something? if not, fanboy journalism.

    • guest

      No, Rapinoe did not play. Probably not even healthy yet.

      • Guest

        Seems a huge gamble for Ellis to take Rap along. A streaky player like her might do wonders in the final, but maybe not. It could be Bad Pinoe.

      • guest

        rapinoe is 100% ready to play at some point in the future.

        • kernel_thai

          U should do PR for USSoccer

      • Lorehead

        The plan might have been, I guess, if she’s healthy then great, and if not they call in their reservist?

  • Cc W

    Mal don’t care – she’s fearless

  • Cc W

    The beauty of the team as comprised, with fewer players that HAVE to start, Ellis has a lot of freedom to change up the line up to suit the opponent. Against NZ, players with more of a physical presence – FRA – speed and technique and COL combo of both – and hopefully be able to rest a few players.

    There are some really good teams at the OG, but do they have the depth that the US has? I’m not sure any team is as fit and talented as the US.

    • Steglitz49

      The US remain überfavorites. Nothing will change that. Only force majeure like food poisoning can stop them getting yet another gold.

      Now the silver and bronze look competitive.

      • Cc W

        Watching FRA against CAN, they didn’t look very good. Granted several starters didn’t start, but they looked disjointed. Canada had numerous chances especially one early. The cross by Lawrence to someone who was asleep in front of the goal with the goalie out of position – in the OG, that’s a goal. I also thought their back line was being beat on the flank. I always think FRA is going to figure things out and their talent will rise up and play to their potential. And then I watch them and see, meh, maybe not.

        • Observed

          CAN was the better team, I thought. FRA front line looked weak and Thomis missed two breakaways. Speed is one thing, now just finish! The only line of excellence on FRA is the midfield. Everyone else is average.

          • ARED

            Thomis is usually deadly -the question is just which team she will kill! ; )

        • sudeep das

          Really boring – after the initial 15 odd minutes I switched over to the recording of USWNT vs CRC match

        • ARED

          France did put it together (mostly) at Canada 2015, but fate went against them (the draw, referees, and tight match against Germany). Now they unfortunately are actually a weaker team I believe, or at least a different one without Thiney playing.

          They still have a lot of talent and can beat any team, but sadly I do not expect them to be able to win this summer unless something odd happens to change their current mix. Perhaps if they could win the group that will spur this change…

      • sudeep das

        Food poisoning from, say, Brazilian chicken tikka for dinner!!!!

    • mockmook

      All the injuries add huge a question mark regarding depth.

      • Cc W

        The only one I’m worried about is Pinoe. With Tobin and Brian, I think they’re just being conservative especially since it was a friendly.

        • Breakers fan

          Not that I know anything more than you about the present condition of their hamstrings but I do know from personal experience, as you may also, that that muscle can be a slow one to heal and an easy one to re-aggravate, and if you do re-aggravate it you really are nowhere near what you would be were you 100% healthy, so I’m worried about Heath and Brian too.

          • mockmook

            Lloyd has to still be in the questionable category, too.

  • #1Fan

    who won the 2014 U-20 WWc ?

    • Bruce

      I don’t follow. Your point?

      • #1Fan

        Good luck to the U-20s in Papua New Guinea this fall and potential future college opponents trying to stop her, by the way.

        My point is its a TEAM game. She played last time. They lost.Its about all XI players.

        • rkmid71

          Agree about the team game. The facts are that her track record is not that great in terms of leading teams to victory. ECNL teams seemed to do OK stopping her. Her team never won a national title. And besides the U20s, didn’t she also play with the U17s in 2014 that didn’t even qualify for the WC? Let’s see what happens if Pugh competes in U20 WC this year when she’s expected to lead a team. And how she does against France and Germany in OG as compared to a friendly at SBC. At the moment, there isn’t any pressure on her as everyone seems to be amazed that an 18 yr old is doing so well — but many other NTs have teenagers doing very well also and playing big roles. At the OG the real responsibility for winning/losing will fall on Lloyd (because she plays all the minutes in a key position), Morgan, Sauerbrunn, Solo. And somehow that cobbled together and hobbling midfield needs to do enough.

          • ARED

            It’s also true that her role on the USWNT is much easier to excel in, which is true for almost any player -as long as they are given a big/regular role. They all know at least vaguely how to play, they always have a ton of the ball, are faster and stronger without trying, and usually have plenty of time in the attacking third.

            Compare that to playing on a team that is more evenly matched, or overmatched. Or with teammates who aren’t refined in their game to know how to move or use space, or when to play which pass.

            For example, plenty of 16-22 year olds play against the USWNT. I often wonder how they’d perform if they were wearing the opposite jersey, because it’s easy to imagine it’d be a much more enjoyable game for them. Just as Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan would find things much tougher if they were born in Mexico.

    • Steglitz49

      Germany won, being lucky to beat Nigeria in the final. France finished 3rd, beating North-Korea.

      The US went out to North-Korea in the QF after penalties.

    • sudeep das

      No point in comparing a 16 year old rookie Pugh with the current 18 year old coming into her own and growing potent with every match. Let’s make that call after this year’s U-20 WC.

  • Ethan

    That play (set up by Lloyd though and not Long) definitely stood out to me. I’ve been thinking Pugh should have shouted at Press to lay off the ball, but maybe she actually did based on this article. Press definitely needed to be more aware of her and Pugh’s positioning, and she should have left the ball for Pugh and gone towards the center of the box for support. I think it’s likely that that would have been another Pugh assist though and not a Pugh goal. Pugh could have drawn out the goalkeeper, and if Press stays behind the ball the whole time, she could have a simple tap in.

    • kernel_thai

      Pugh is still at the stage where she has to raise her hand to address a team mate : )

      • Daniellerramos

        <<o. ★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★✫★:::::::!be578p:….,….

      • ARED

        An embarrassing fact if you ask me, but one that seems somewhat true. I did notice her directing teammates more and more recently though.

        Her reading and understanding of the game is far beyond many of the “veterans” in my opinion, which makes the media questioning her and others’ “lack of experience” more silly than usual. Experience can help, but it can also hurt, and being good will always help more. Pugh’s errors in judgement and giveaways are very rare -not something I would say about a few other regulars on the team…lol.

        • sudeep das

          The on field inputs from Pugh are increasing every game and it’s refreshing to watch.
          This highlights
          1) how much Pugh has integrated with the team
          2) the amount of respect the team has got for her talent
          3) she is the future captain
          4) she is the next play maker at #10 for years to come after Lloyd retires

          Press and Morgan have to sort out their finishing under pressure in tight situations. And that’s a worry because good teams will not leave space for them. Finishing in general has been a bit of a problem for the USWNT. Even Pugh missed two goals against South Africa !!!

          • ARED

            I agree on almost all of that. I believe Pugh is a better play maker #10 than Lloyd right now, but we’ll have to wait to see that most likely until Lloyd choses to give it up as you say.

            Pugh’s game fits perfectly with the players who are fast, play fast, and think fast. For me that is Heath, Morgan, Press, Klingenberg, O’Hara, Long and Brian (slower, but still smart). I think as we’ve seen more of these players it becomes clear they will create top quality chances against any opponent -and while I agree the finishing can be hot-cold, I still believe Morgan and Press are easily among the best finishers in the women’s game -and they both create a ton for themselves and for teammates. You could say that almost every national team has finishing problems -and in soccer it’s normal for players to miss more than they actually score. The key is to create 4-5 chances a half and make sure you finish enough of them.

  • Guest

    Does FourFourTwo have any inside knowledge that I don’t know about? Their recent article said Heath and Pugh are competing for the starting spot at left wing. I was under the assumption that Heath and Pugh were both starters when healthy.

    • guest

      My guess would be that Heath and Pugh are both starters when healthy. They might be questioning who player on the right vs who plays on the left but I don’t think it matters that much for either.

      • ARED

        I think it’s just soft reporting. People see Dunn on the right somewhat consistently and that she has scored some goals, and assume it is her spot. I agree Heath and Pugh are without a doubt the best two wide players, but I am not sure Ellis sees it this way (yet).

        • Guest

          I think Ellis does see it this way, I can’t think of a recent game where Dunn has started out wide over one of them when everyone has been healthy.

    • Steglitz49

      If Pinoe starts, can both Tobin and Mallory start? Given that Tobin and Pinoe do not combine well on the pitch, JE would probably start Mallory over Tobin.

      • Guest

        Well the article said Tobin and Pugh are competing for the left side, but that wouldn’t even make sense if Pinoe starts cause she’d be on the left. Pinoe definitely won’t be starting game one anyways though.

        I stil think game one will end up being Tobin and Pugh starting, with Dunn coming on for one of them in the second half.

        • ARED

          It definitely should be Heath and Pugh, but I tend to expect Pugh will have to play off-and-on duty, with Dunn likely starting the first game. I also don’t expect Rapinoe to factor as a starting player until late stages if at all.

          In Ellis’ eyes Heath wasn’t a starter last year, despite it being an obvious decision (for me…lol). So until I see her use Pugh as a starter at the Olympics, I won’t expect it -even if it’s another obvious decision in my eyes.

      • Pinoe won’t start any games. At least not until a Semi-final or final, Maybe. But I highly doubt it. I could see her playing very limited role in Brazil. She just is not needed like she was last year.

        • Steglitz49

          I take the view that her inclusion is for business and diplomatic reasons, the line of least resistance for JE. Also, should they fail, they have a ready made scape goat.

      • ARED

        They could all start, but not under Ellis’ ways. And I think you’re mistaken -everyone combines well with Heath! (Although it’s true Rapinoe doesn’t always share the ball…lol).

  • Kevin

    I kinda like Pugh taking the corners. I didn’t realize she had that much power, but she sent in some nice line drives in the past two games.

    • ARED

      Shows that technique and touch can go a long way, no? I also was interested to see how much power Pugh brought to the international game, but she answered all of my questions long ago. Her shot may not be fully developed, but it’s good enough -and everything else (crosses, corners, weight of passing, etc) is excellent. She’s also shown strength and tenacity to win free balls and tackles, and when added to her understanding of the game and instincts, it makes her a remarkably complete player -which is not something I say lightly….

      Added plus on corners is that Pugh and Klingenberg are obviously not aerials threats, but easily can run short or long corners as it’s simply extending their normal wing play, with guaranteed time and space.