Ending weeks of speculation after Mallory Pugh announced her decision to go pro, today we learned she will indeed play in the NWSL for the Washington Spirit, who hold the top spot in the Distribution Ranking Order.
A SLICE OF HUMBLE PIE
To be clear, I was wrong, you were likely wrong, a lot of people got this wrong. Although never stated publicly by Pugh, a variety of sources reported in no uncertain terms that she did not want to play in Washington and preferred Portland. French side Paris Saint-Germain was interested. Seattle, Orlando, and Houston were said to be interested or involved in what could have been a multi-team trade. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati was very involved. All signs pointed to a deal.
I fully admit that I expected the league to intervene and force a trade to keep Pugh stateside, wherever she wanted to be. After all, the league created the DRO a year ago precisely to enable Pugh to skip college and go pro the first time she wanted to, a decision which she ultimately delayed by a year. We’ve seen players with the power to pull rank do so in order to end up where they wanted, and I had every expectation this would happen again. Well, I was wrong, the league is following its own procedures, and she’ll play in Washington.
Mallory Pugh will not save Washington any more than Marta is saving Orlando. First of all, Washington doesn’t need saving. Sure, they’re not as good as they were last year, but they’ve improved week over week and should continue to do so once their slate of injuries eases. Any prediction that they’d drastically sink to the bottom of the table was overblown and influenced by the overwhelmingly negative offseason narrative.
What Pugh does bring is twofold. First, she packs an immediate offensive punch, helping to fill the Crystal Dunn-shaped hole in the width of the attack. No one player is going to transform the Spirit into the Courage overnight, but there’s no doubt she’s a valuable addition. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, if she stays with Washington long-term (big if), she is a player around whom they can build a team. Pugh is a young goalscorer on the National Team and as such brings immediate star power that will continue to grow, a quality the Spirit lacked after the departures of Dunn and Ali Krieger. Playing at the highest level week in and week out should do wonders for her sophistication and consistency, development she was as likely to get at UCLA as Carli Lloyd gets from friendlies against Russia.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
The loss of several high-profile NWSL players to Europe has been blown out of proportion. Lloyd and Alex Morgan will be back soon, Heather O’Reilly is at the end of her career, and even Dunn will return by next year’s World Cup qualifiers. However, it’s the young players whose moves have created less buzz that are more concerning. Savannah Jordan, Ashley Lawrence, and Kadeisha Buchanan were all highly touted college players who decided to start their professional careers overseas. While I personally doubt Pugh to PSG was ever a serious option – the French season is all but over and doesn’t start again until September – there’s no doubt she easily could have signed in Europe.
Now, what Pugh has that the above mentioned young players do not is a lucrative contract with US Soccer. No one is going to skip a free college education to play in the NWSL for $40,000 a season. Pugh represents the exception, not the rule, but in the world of women’s soccer, where Dzsenifer Marozsán and Sam Kerr and Sakina Karchaoui all began playing professionally as teenagers, the USWNT needs to begin developing these exceptions earlier in order to stay competitive, instead of relying on an (as of recently) underwhelming youth program and the college system. Mallory Pugh was going to be a part of the USWNT regardless of where she played or even if she stayed in college, so the fact that she not only chose the NWSL but also followed the procedures of the league is a win all around.
Welcome to the pros, Mal Pugh. It’s going to be fun.