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Top WoSo Moments of 2017: Miss Pugh goes to Washington

After much negotiating, Mallory Pugh landed in NWSL and Washington. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Mallory Pugh was playing in the NWSL at the age of 19 this summer. But for the Washington Spirit? Well, that was certainly unexpected.

The saga began in January of 2016 when, on the eve of her full U.S. national team debut and the NWSL draft, it was leaked that then 17-year-old Pugh was turning pro and wanted to play in Portland. The league then mysteriously concocted an allocation order (now Distribution Ranking Order or DRO), had Portland trade one of its first round picks in the entry (college) draft to Boston to get the top spot and presumably select Pugh.

Only Pugh and her family balked and she enrolled at UCLA. As it turned out, she would never play in a regular-season game there, as she played for the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup in 2016 and – after Portland had lost its top spot in the DRO order when the 2016 season ended, selecting no one – decided in April of this year it was time to really turn pro. By then, Washington was atop the DRO order, fresh off a purge that left most of its stars (most notably Pugh’s USWNT Olympic teammates Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn) elsewhere and the Spirit picked at the bottom of most preseason NWSL prognostications.

Most assumed Portland and Washington would hammer out a deal to send Pugh to her preferred destination, but the Thorns were somewhat reluctant to give up established players for someone they already traded for 15 months earlier, and the Spirit needed both Pugh’s talent and a marketable star. Eventually after some talk of Pugh going to Europe, she signed with the US Soccer and was went to the Spirit via the DRO on May 13, making her debut on May 20 against Kansas City.

{MORE:  See our 2017 WoSo Moments so far}

Pugh showed flashes of brilliance and dominance, scoring six times in 16 appearances, but battled injuries and USWNT commitments all year, losing out on NWSL Rookie of the Year to Ashley Hatch and ultimately unable to get the Spirit off the bottom of the league table.

While a bit belated, Pugh’s signing with NWSL was quite historic, marking the first time an American has skipped college soccer to play in an American professional league (fellow Colorado native Lindsey Horan did the same, but played professionally in France before returning to the NWSL). With the bulk of her salary coming from USSF (and some Nike money), Pugh has a luxury not many others have, but she could eventually start a trend, even if they likely won’t be foregoing college in droves in the near future. Ashley Sanchez, who would have been Pugh’s college teammate at UCLA, has been in USWNT camps, while high schoolers Sophia Smith, Brianna Padro, and Jaelin Howell all saw time in full U.S. training this year as well. It’s a long way from there to be a USWNT regular like Pugh, but if they get there before they graduate from college, the door is now open for them.

In a final irony to 2017, Pugh-less UCLA lost to Andi Sullivan and Stanford in the NCAA final. While we’ll never know for sure, it could have been Sullivan and not Pugh that the Spirit had in mind when they traded for the top spot in the DRO last November, hoping Sullivan – who grew up near Washington and had become a regular on the USWNT – would skip her senior year to play for them. Alas, three days later, Sullivan tore her ACL in the NCAA Tournament and would not get allocated for 2017. But, as fate would have it, the Spirit stand to have both Sullivan and Pugh for 2018 if they, as expected, take Sullivan with the first pick in the 2018 entry draft next month.

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