It was a typically icy February afternoon in Denver, and Mallory Pugh had just wrapped up a day of school at Mountain Vista High School. She was on her way to practice with her club team when the phone buzzed. Dad’s name popped up on the caller ID.
The news on the other end was seismic. Pugh, then a 15-year-old sophomore, had just been called into a U20 Women’s National Team camp in Florida. The timing was even more noteworthy. This was the first post-qualification camp before the Canada-hosted U20 Women’s World Cup in August, presumably putting Pugh directly in U20 WNT coach Michelle French’s line of sight for the tournament. She didn’t know it at the time, but a call-up would make her the youngest U.S. player brought to the event since FIFA raised the age limit to 20 eight years ago.
That was February. It’s been a mad four months for one of the next great hopes for U.S. women’s soccer, who’s doing her best to take it all in stride. Now 16, Pugh has her sights firmly set on making the U20 roster later this summer.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure,” Pugh said. “I just want to do it and have fun with it. That’s all that matters is just to have fun with it and do what I love.”
Pugh hasn’t had a lot of time to fill outside women’s national team duties lately, but she most recently fit in a late June trip to Seattle to play with U16 club side Real Colorado in the ECNL national playoffs. In three games, Pugh scored two goals and notched two assists to help the team qualify for July’s final round in Richmond, Virginia. She only played a handful of games this spring for the high school team she led to a Class 5A state title as a freshman, and she may not have time to play in Virginia depending on her U20 schedule.
But she put on a dazzling display in Seattle all the same. She primarily played up top, but she dove in and out of dangerous positions on the right and on the left, and she even dropped deep into the midfield at times to stoke play. Creatively, there are few players in the nation with more ideas than Pugh, a recent UCLA verbal commit and the No. 1 recruit in the TopDrawerSoccer.com class of 2016. Whether those ideas manifest in the form of a stabbing run from deep, a free kick fit snugly into the corner or an effortless assist, Pugh likely projects as either a creative attacking midfielder or a second forward at the next level.
This summer, it’s entirely possible she’ll be selected to play with a nucleus of U20 players who just completed their freshman seasons in college. Pugh, who won’t have started her junior year in high school by the time the U20 World Cup kicks off in August, only became old enough to drive a month ago.
“The kid’s special,” said Neil Payne, Pugh’s club coach with the Real Colorado U16s. “She’s just different. A lot of this comes easy to her. She has such an influence in the game, and that’s hard to manufacture. The kid’s just got this natural ability that I’ve never seen before.”
As late as January, Pugh was still a premier member of the U.S. U17 team that lost to Mexico and failed to emerge from CONCACAF qualifying for this spring’s U17 Women’s World Cup. But she acquitted herself well, scoring three goals during the tournament and stepping out as arguably the team’s brightest attacking light. That caught French’s attention, and Pugh suddenly found herself surrounded in a U20 camp by some players five years her senior.
No matter. She didn’t waste her first call-up to the U20 roster in February. She scored two goals and provided an assist in two matches against China, and she now anxiously awaits French’s final roster decision later this summer. She has age and relative inexperience working against her, but French may opt to gamble on Pugh’s game-changing skill set that presents its own unique set of positives. Even though she’s just 16, there are no other players in the pool quite like her.
In early June, just weeks before trekking to Seattle with Real Colorado, Pugh traveled with the U20 team to France to take part in a pair of friendlies against the host nation. Pugh made typically productive work of the opportunity, providing an assist to standout Harvard forward Margaret Purce in a 2-1 victory in one of those games. That will help her cause tremendously as the U.S. pushes to defend its 2012 U20 title and win its third championship in four tournaments.
“France was a lot of fun,” Pugh said. “It was one of my favorite trips. Since we were there for a long time, the national team, just having a close bond with all the girls is important for the next couple months.”
Does that mean Pugh expects to make the World Cup roster? Not necessarily. One domestic camp in July lays between Pugh and a historic call-up. Whether it happens or not, Pugh is certainly enjoying the ride.
“I feel like I’ve worked really hard,” Pugh said. “But I’ll support my team no matter what, if I make it or if I don’t.”