When Mallory Pugh is dribbling, attacking, she doesn’t think. Doesn’t think about the defender in front of her. Next to her. Behind her. It’s not that she isn’t processing her surroundings; rather, her mind is blank, almost as if she has blacked out. Instinct tells her when to pull back. When to accelerate. Her feet, her body, just go. “It’s hard to explain,” Pugh says. “You’re literally not thinking. You’re just being. You’re just out playing.”
She’s never had to think. She hasn’t even considered herself somebody who thinks for that matter : “I’m not much of a thinker.” Not thinking is what has allowed her to maintain her poise when competing against women nearly twice her age. It’s what helped her become the youngest U.S. women’s soccer player to score in the Olympic Games at just 18 back in 2016. She’s always relied on being the fastest, most electric player on the field, nearly impossible to defend in one-on-one situations.
“You give Mal space,” says Alex Morgan, co-captain of the U.S. national team, “and she’ll do magic with it.”
For as long as Pugh can remember, “magic” happened by doing. Growing up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, she was the smallest, skinniest five-year-old girl out on the pitch. Her shorts swallowed up her legs, her smile was missing a front tooth, but she could fire in goals without quite knowing how. She just scored. Just followed the advice of her father, Horace, before every match: By 12, she could take over games, orchestrate them, like a conductor. Go play your game.
Even as she morphed into a prodigy and was anointed the future of U.S. women’s soccer, she didn’t question herself. Soccer wasn’t a space she had to be perfect in. She didn’t worry about failure. She just saw green-endless green-as she dribbled ahead, faster, faster. No thinking. Just flying.
That was nine years ago. She isn’t 12 anymore. She’s 21 and coming to terms with who she is, where she is right now. She’s inked sponsorships with the likes of Nike and Gatorade, but she’s more of an X-factor than superstar on a team that hopes to repeat as champion at the World Cup, which starts this month in France. She’s competing for playing time with veteran forwards like Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. It’s unclear if Pugh will come off the bench. That’s a lot to metabolize. A lot to think about.
“There is a piece of her that has had to grow up,” says Sterling Joseph, her strength and conditioning coach at Team Speed who has known her all her life. “In previous years, she’d just come in there with her eyes closed and just play, pretty much. And now, it’s different. It’s not like that.”
Earlier this year, on a morning in late January, Pugh walked to the front of a Nike studio in Culver City, California. Standing next to her teammates Morgan, Rapinoe, Lloyd and Crystal Dunn, she smiled, looked down at her feet for a second. She seemed shy but warm. Friendly. She’s dreamt of playing in the World Cup for as long as she can remember. “It’s kind of surreal that it’s here,” she says. “It’s happening.”
A crowd gathered in front of the room to see an embargoed unveiling of the World Cup kit, a sartorial nod to the ’99 squad that featured legends like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. Morgan, 29, grabbed a microphone and addressed the room. “They just inspired the next generation,” she said of the ’99ers. “That included me and I’m sure all of my teammates. Maybe not Mal, because she was six months old at that point.”
Everyone laughed. Pugh did, too. She’s used to it. Then Rapinoe, 33, piled on: “Yeah, I mean, all of the little kids like Mal are obsessed with us.”
It was all in jest. Pugh has been subject to friendly teasing ever since she joined the national team at 17 in 2016. (She was the youngest player to join in over a decade.) Defender Kelley O’Hara took to calling her “Little Mal Mal” and “Young Pug” (her rap name). Midfielder Lindsey Horan refers to Pugh as her “Little Sister . ” Pugh loved all of her teammates, looked up to them, but the ribbing came often. “They’d just joke like, ‘Oh Mal, you have prom?'” Pugh says.
Truth is, her teammates adore her. Respect her. Not just because of her talent but because she strikes the right balance between being hopeful and ambitious. She asserts herself but doesn’t act like a know-it-all. She seeks advice but never seems lost. She is humble, quiet, eager to be molded but is confident, bold, unwilling to back down. Morgan calls Pugh “tenacious” and “super determined.” “Usually when you come on this team, you’re pretty intimidated,” she says, “but Mal was exactly who she was when she first came on this team.”
You give Mal space and she’ll do magic with it”-Alex Morgan, co-captain of the U.S. national team.
“Eventually she could be, and she probably will be. Definitely has that talent, but I think sort of balancing that confidence with also that humility and being able to learn and understand from the older players what it takes to be consistent is definitely challenging,” Rapinoe says. “It’s a challenging environment for everyone, much less someone who is 21 years old.”
Pugh is short with her words. She speaks when she has something to say. She isn’t quick to open up. She doesn’t really talk about soccer, even with those closest to her. Her national team coach sometimes forgets she’s only 21: “I don’t even see her as a young player anymore,” Jill Ellis says.
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She has always been a private person, naturally. But, over time, she’s found that social apps drain her, bother her. “I was just sick and tired of seeing the stuff that I see on Instagram, the fake image that people portray themselves as,” Pugh says. “Most people’s Instagrams are the best, the happy sides of their lives.”
Listening to Pugh, it’s clear that she is no longer a rookie. But, she’s not quite a veteran yet either. She’s somewhere in the middle, navigating the growing pains that come with ambition and responsibility.
As a young girl, Pugh didn’t think of expectations. She just wanted to compete. Especially against her older sister, Bri. She followed Bri everywhere. One game, Bri failed to convert a couple of goals and seven-year-old Pugh, sitting on the team bench, screamed out: “How could you miss those?!”
Lorne Donaldson, then Bri’s coach, smiled, turning to Pugh: “You better not miss those when you get to her age.”
Pugh looked up to her older sister, despite being quicker, more skilled than her-except when it came to juggling. Pugh couldn’t even juggle 10 times, whereas Bri-who would go on to play for the University of Oregon and, later, the USA’s U23 team-could keep it going. That didn’t sit well with Pugh; so, she practiced and practiced until she could do it. “She had that competitive fire,” says Rivers Guthrie, one of Pugh’s former coaches at Real Colorado.
Though Pugh was undersized at first, she took a different path: playing soccer with the boys and, as she got older, up a division with girls. Especially when it became clear that she was good enough to compete at the national level.
That became evident during a game at the Manchester United Premier Cup in Portland, Oregon. Thirteen-year-old Pugh was the youngest player on the field, playing in the U14 Division. Her team, Real Colorado, trailed Eclipse Select of Chicago at halftime when Donaldson, Real Colorado’s coach, walked up to Pugh. He told her she needed to be more selfish. She needed to score. She needed to take over. She nodded, didn’t say anything, came out and exploded for two goals to win the game.
It’s a challenging environment for everyone, much less someone who is 21 years old”-Megan Rapinoe
That’s when U.S. national team scouts started watching her. They saw her athleticism, her finesse. The way she seemed older, the way she played older. And there it was: the moment that changes a young athlete’s trajectory forever. The moment she is discovered-placed on a track that elevates her from player to prodigy, from near the microscope to directly under its gaze.
Pugh was now in the system. Now everyone knew her name. Now she was on stage. The biggest, the brightest. But she didn’t view soccer like that. For her it was never a stage , a place to perform. It was just a chance to play. No pressure, no frills. Just play.
Until an injury halted her ascent. It happened at a game, when Pugh was 14. After blazing downfield, juking girls this way, dropping girls that way, she planted her right foot to change direction and collapsed to the ground. It might have been the plant. It might have been the slight bump from the player guarding her. But something in Pugh’s leg locked and snapped.
Donaldson thought to himself. That’s her career. The visual was so gruesome Donaldson had to look away. But Pugh didn’t cry. Not even as she was rushed to the hospital. She had broken her femur and would undergo surgery. Four months later, though, after she labored day after day in rehab, she miraculously returned to the field. Back to juking, back to dropping. Flying.
She starred as the youngest player on various youth national teams, traveling around the world. Her life sped up. Felt different. Then, U.S. Soccer prohibited her from playing for her high school, Mountain Vista. Pugh would still show up in uniform and sit on the bench, never missing games. Maybe some part of her wanted a slice of her old life back. Back when she was a normal high school girl. But there was nothing normal about where she was headed.
When Pugh first joined the national team, in 2016, her new veteran teammates welcomed her by pushing her hard. “Not treating her like she’s a young player but treating her like she’s any player on the team,” Dunn says.
Another time, Pugh remembers, O’Hara told her: “It’s competitive in here. You’re starting right now, but you can’t take that for granted.”
Something about that hit Pugh: Though she wasn’t afraid of anyone and was just starting to learn how to play at this level, she needed to prove she belonged. In her first cap with the senior national team against Ireland on January 23, she came in for Morgan in the 58th minute and scored on a header off an assist from Christen Press. Less than a month later, she signed her letter of intent to play at UCLA that fall.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Then, in August, the Olympics happened. Well, Pugh happened. She became the youngest American player to score in Olympic history at the Rio Games. Reporters, seizing on her age, repeatedly asked her if she was nervous. She said she wasn’t. But that answer wasn’t satisfactory, didn’t make sense to them. She tried to explain that in her mind, there was nothing to be nervous about. Nothing to think about. The Olympics, her backyard. They were the same. Just another game.
“I didn’t really think much of it,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, it was cool. I was excited.”
After Rio, Pugh had one cleat in one world, the other cleat in another. National team duties like training camps called; so too did her obligations as an amateur. She delayed coming to UCLA until the winter quarter. Then the “turn pro” noise, which had remained background noise for the most part, began to crescendo.
Outsiders bombarded her with advice that she never asked for:
“You need to go to college! You could get hurt, and soccer could end tomorrow!”
“You’d be turning down a college scholarship!”
“You need to go pro if you want to have a shot at sticking with the national team!”
“College is absolutely not for you! Your time is NOW. Don’t miss it.”
Horan, who opted out of college to sign with Paris Saint-Germain FC in France back in 2012, understood what Pugh was going through. “A lot of it was, if you don’t do this, is gonna happen,” she says. “I was like, This is so wrong to be saying this to an 18-year-old girl. Really messed up. ”
When she got to UCLA that winter, Pugh would lie in her bed in her dorm room, contemplating whether she should really be there. Y es, you should go. No, you shouldn’t go. “It was awful. Awful!” Pugh says.
Things on the outside looked terrific. She had played for her country. She had become a budding star. But, like any 18-year-old, uncertainty began to overwhelm her. Grip her. Especially at night. “I was just feeling kind of lost,” Pugh says.
“I was like, I love soccer, but I just don’t know what to do with my life.”
As Pugh struggled to make a decision, she felt exhausted from juggling her college and national team commitments. She couldn’t be everywhere and do everything. She returned home for spring break, but, according to Jared Spires, Real Colorado’s COO, she seemed “underwater.” Real’s coaches assured her that there was nothing wrong with her . But Pugh couldn’t figure out why things weren’t clicking.
She leaned on advice from her dad: “There’s going to be people who agree with you and people that don’t agree with you,” Horace said. “Ultimately, you have to do what you need to do. Trust yourself.”
She returned to UCLA, and, shortly after, the answer came to her in her dorm. It felt right. Clear. Yeah, she told herself. I’m gonna go pro.
The decision was somewhat controversial. She’d never play in a college game. “It would have been great for her to stay,” says UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell, “but as a fan of the game, if a woman can get paid a lot of money to go pro and get big-time sponsorships, then why not do it?”
She remembers telling Pugh at the time: “If your heart’s not totally here, then it’s not fair to us. You need to be all-in where you are.”
Knowing where she was meant to be gave Pugh total peace of mind. It was a turning point in her life, she says. She felt in control. She trusted herself. “It’s my life. I get to choose what I do, and everyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter,” Pugh says. “It’s blunt, but that’s exactly what I’ve learned.”
But turning pro, moving to Washington, D.C., to play for the Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), in 2017, was not what she expected. “Living by myself was difficult,” Pugh says, “and really, really hard.”
It’s my life. I get to choose what I do, and everyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter”-Mallory Pugh on her decision to turn pro.
Pugh was far from friends and family. She didn’t have the structure of college, the time to adapt to her surroundings. “I was like: What am I doing? I could be in my comfort zone at UCLA with my friends, but I was like, No, you’re here for a reason,” she says. ” ” You have your dreams and goals and to be able to achieve them, this is what you have to do so it’s worth it.
She had to support herself: She had to eat but didn’t really know how to cook. Her dad’s home-cooked meals-she loves his catfish-were of the past. Early on, she’d sometimes make jokes about her culinary inexperience. She could only cook things that end with an O, she said, like SpaghettiOs, Cheerios. But she learned to make banana bread by season’s end.
She was better on the pitch, leading the Spirit with six goals and adding one assist in her first season. “I think her ability to change a game is something that doesn’t just translate to the 90-minute matches,” says Tom Torres, Spiritplayer/opponent analyst and technical development coach. “She trains super hard and always wants to be the best player on the field.”
But she longed for home too. Sometimes she’d fly to Colorado to see her friends or have them come visit her. “It was just tough,” Donaldson says. “She grew up real fast.”
More injuries didn’t help. She suffered a knee injury in May 2018 and missed over two months of the NWSL season. As a result, she wasn’t in top form once she rejoined the U.S. national team. She didn’t play as much in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship later that fall, partially due to the stellar play of her fellow forwards.
“She took it as: ‘You know what? I have to be better. I have to get to work,'” says Donaldson, a former Jamaica national team legend who will serve as an assistant coach for Jamaica’s team at the World Cup. “She’s determined. She is pushing it to another level to get back to where she knows she can be.”
She has been the first substitution off the bench in every match of 2019. She scored a spectacular goal against France in January and two more against Australia in April, but she’s still fighting for a starting spot.
“I’m learning more of the mental side of professional sports,” Pugh says. “And it’s hard.”
Pugh’s closest friends have helped her remain grounded through the process. Helped her see the joy in what she has been going through. They know that she’s still a kid at heart. A goofball who isn’t afraid to laugh at herself, like the time she showed up to her U18 Real Colorado club practice, back in high school, on Halloween, dressed in her costume: a giant hot dog. She still fangirls, like at this year’s Super Bowl, when she freaked out about sitting near Queen Latifah, sending Spires a text: “OMG! Can you believe this?! This is so crazy!” Pugh also still wears her worn, black Real Colorado jacket that she got eight years ago as a 13-year-old. She isn’t swimming in it anymore. Now it’s snug. Just right. It reminds her of home, of Colorado, a place she returns to often.
On a recent afternoon in May, during a brief hiatus from national team duties, Mal rolls up to Real Colorado’s training complex in her dad’s giant Ford truck. Here, there is not a patch of grass she does not know, not a face she does not recognize. Here, she doesn’t need to be Mallory Pugh, just Mal. Today’s training session is with Donaldson and Joseph, whom she considers family, and Rivers Guthrie, another one of her former coaches.
They don’t take it easy on her. They don’t put her on a pedestal either. “None of that special-treatment shit,” Joseph says. His daughter Peyton is one of Pugh’s best friends. They grew up playing together. “Mal is just one of the athletes that trains here. … She sweats just like any other athlete.”
Steve Luciano/Associated Press
For about an hour, she hits 50 balls, blazing down field faster, faster, faster before becoming visibly frustrated. “I’m not hitting the ball well,” she says to Donaldson. “Let’s work on finishing.”
Building confidence is a difficult endeavor, no matter who you are. But knowing, deep down, whether she’s good enough still tugs at her. Still challenges her: “It’s definitely a learning process for me-the confidence part. The more I can just go out and play my game, and not think, and get into that zone, the more that confidence is built. There are also external factors playing a role and also the internal pressure I put on myself too.
“I’ve been a lot better with the external factors, just ignoring them. It’s more of the internal pressure.”
This will be one of the final moments Pugh will have at home before the World Cup begins. Come the opening rounds, she might not be called to play her natural position. That’s still up for grabs. Regardless, Joseph says, “She has to come in ready to play.”
The United States’ first game is June 11 against Thailand in Group F. If Pugh can find the right balance, eyes closed, mind clear, it could mean magic for the team.
“I don’t think she has anywhere near reached her full potential,” Joseph says. “She could be one of the best players in the world.”
That might require a little bit more conscious selfishness, as her coaches from back home tell her. (“Remember, you can take anyone one vs. one.”) Or it could take Pugh’s special ability to facilitate. She lives to set up other people.
Or it might take something else entirely-something she is still working her way through. “You are constantly battling with your own self,” Pugh says. “I’m very hard on myself.”
The hardest part? “Having confidence,” she says. “I know when I do have confidence is when I’m playing my best, but there’s obviously sometimes-it just happens in life-you’re down in the dumps, and you’re like, Am I good enough? I just have to remind myself, Yeah, you’re good enough. You’re here for a reason.”
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She’s written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.