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Lauletta: Thoughts on Pugh signing with U.S. Soccer/Spirit

It was announced during the Lifetime Game of the Week that Mallory Pugh has signed with the Spirit. (photo by Allison Lee)
It was announced during the Lifetime Game of the Week that Mallory Pugh has signed with the Spirit. (photo by Allison Lee)

It was announced during the Lifetime Game of the Week that Mallory Pugh has signed with the Spirit. (photo by Allison Lee)

When Mallory Pugh left UCLA to pursue a professional career, four teams immediately became part of the discussion. The Thorns, because they’re the Thorns and they almost landed her early in 2016; the two French giants, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, because they like to collect high-profile players; and the Spirit. Why the Spirit? Because they held the top pick in the DRO (Distribution Ranking Order) after a pair of November trades. But the last seven months have been dotted with players leaving Washington–not going there–and Grant Wahl’s initial report about Pugh turning pro suggested she did not want to play at the SoccerPlex.

But now, less than four full weeks later, here we are with Mallory Pugh about to join the Washington Spirit. Part of me is proud that when the team began its march up the DRO list by trading popular defender Ali Krieger, I was one of the few who attempted to take a big-picture approach.

At the same time I must admit that I never thought we would see the day when the Spirit won out and attained Pugh’s services. Here are a few more thoughts:

This is a good day for just about everyone

No one player makes or breaks a league, but one player or moment can set the directional chart for a league for many years to come. Pugh may or may not be that player, but it is a good look all around the world that she will play in NWSL when some of the top clubs in Europe were showing interest. Sure, she will have her checks signed by U.S. Soccer, but so do all of her teammates, and the outside world will see her as a Washington Spirit player and rarely be concerned about the federation being involved.

The bigger winners are the Spirit. Following an offseason that saw much of the heart of last year’s very successful team leave in a slew of trades and transfers, getting Pugh to agree to play at the Plex is a sign to the league and to the world that they are a legitimate team. These things matter. Major League Soccer is still riding the residual wave of having David Beckham not only play in the league but globally endorse it. And that’s just the public perception.

On the field, Pugh is a dynamic winger who has already shown an ability to take on and beat some of the top defenders on the international level. Outside backs all around NWSL are likely to be quaking in their boots at the prospect of trying to contain her. We have yet to see her perform on a week in, week out basis, so there could be some peaks and valleys, but Pugh will be a player that opposing teams will have to take note of—all the time.

Off the field, Pugh is instantly among the handful of most marketable players around. Her signing is likely to boost ticket sales at the SoccerPlex, and opponents will now be using phrases like, “Mallory Pugh and the Washington Spirit….”

The Thorns actually came up short

If there is any loser in this arrangement, it is the Portland Thorns though I had to guess, deep down they are happier with Pugh in Washington D.C. than Europe. But the Thorns’ pursuit of Pugh dates back to 2016 when the DRO mechanism was released on draft day and the Thorns immediately traded the No. 3 pick to the Breakers for the right to swap places and get to the top of the chart. At the time there was said to be an agreement in place for her to sign and play for the Thorns, but she changed her mind and enrolled at UCLA. The Thorns pursued her again this time around, but the Spirit held their ground. The teams engaged in trade talks, but there was no common ground to be had.

Through it all there seemed to be a blind belief that somehow the Thorns would wind up with Pugh even if it meant someone up the food chain strong arming the Spirit into trading her rights. That did not happen, and that is a good thing for NWSL because it has shown it is not a league of one super club and a bunch of other clubs.

In the end, the Thorns really lost out when it comes to Mallory Pugh. Their standing in the league and Christen Westphal’s relative ineffectiveness for the Breakers (who the Breakers used that No. 3 pick on) makes it easy to overlook that the Thorns gave up a very valuable asset only to have Pugh turn her back on a pro career at that time.

I can only imagine the outcry had Pugh changed her mind on the Spirit and then agreed to play when the Thorns were in the driver’s seat. Let’s just remember that it doesn’t always work out in favor of the mighty Thorns.

How will the Spirit use her?

Because this is, after all, a soccer league, right?

This is a straight hot take, but my first thought here is for Pugh and Kristie Mewis to function as wingbacks in a 3-5-2 that Gabarra seems to prefer and now has the personnel to play effectively. That would move Kassey Kallman to play in back with Estelle Johnson, with Shelina Zadorsky between them. Tori Huster obviously would lead the midfield trio with Line Jensen-Sigvardsen and Havana Solaun, with some two-woman combination of Ordega, Katie Stengel, and Cheyna Williams up top.

That’s just one idea. I’m sure Jim Gabarra has at least four alternative ideas, and I’m also sure he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. Gabarra is also a tweaker so don’t expect him to come up with a certain lineup by this time next month and blindly stick to it.

Wherever, and whenever, Mallory Pugh lines up for the Spirit, one thing is for certain – it will be must-watch streaming.

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