(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Mallory Pugh is back and made sure her presence was felt with the United States women’s national team on Thursday night.

Carli Lloyd scored a whopping five goals and Andi Sullivan buried the first two goals of her international career, but quietly making an impact in the team’s 9-0 win over Paraguay was Pugh.

The 23-year-old recorded a career-high three assists in her first appearance with the USWNT since March 2020. She began the night in the starting lineup and finished second in fan voting for Woman of the Match, just behind Lloyd’s 75.3 percent. Pugh’s three assists were the most by a USWNT player since Alex Morgan had three against Thailand at the 2019 World Cup.

Pugh accomplished all of that in just 58 minutes of play, before substitute Sophia Smith relieved her. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski was impressed with Pugh’s runs and positioning.

“Very happy with her performance,” he said. “This is just one of those games to get her back in, to refresh the principles, and hopefully it’s just the beginning of getting her back to her best.”

Pugh has been focusing on playing more freely this year. When she made her first appearance with the national team as a 17-year-old in 2016, Pugh benefited from a just-have-fun-with-it attitude. She says she’s rediscovered that mindset in the NWSL these past few months and is taking this USWNT camp as an opportunity to build on the momentum.

It also helps that she’s around her friends again.

“I literally haven’t seen Tobin [Heath] in like a year and a half,” she said. “Every camp I was in, she was out, and vice versa. So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re here in real life.’ It was awesome.”

Pugh was left off of the USWNT roster for the first time in her career when Andonovski named the team for the Olympic qualifiers in January 2020. Since then, she’s had an impressive first season with the Chicago Red Stars and has found her way back onto the coach’s radar.

“When Mallory is performing well, staying healthy and she’s performing well on a consistent basis, she’s going to be a very important piece of this puzzle,” Andonovski said. “She’s going to be a very important player for this team. I’m excited for her and we’re looking forward to having Mal in good form.”

Pugh has three goals and three assists in 17 starts (and 18 games) with the Red Stars. With five games left before the NWSL playoffs, the forward ranks fifth in the league with 37 shots.

Before joining Chicago this season, Pugh hadn’t scored a goal since 2019. The Highlands Ranch, Colo. native also hadn’t found much stability in the league until this year. After three seasons with the Washington Spirit, she was traded to Sky Blue FC (now Gotham FC) in January 2020 but barely saw the field because of a hip injury. In December, the Red Stars acquired Pugh from Sky Blue in a package deal.

Coming off of the injury, Pugh needed to find her form again. Besides having to get used to the cold, Chicago was the place to do that.

“I think over my club career, it’s been a little uneasy and I think I’ve finally found Chicago to be a place where I can express how I want to play,” Pugh said. “So far, I love the club. I wanted to be surrounded by players who could push me, and for me that was being at Chicago. My agent was able to get that to work out. It’s just been a really good fit for me.”

Next up for Pugh is another USWNT friendly against Paraguay on Tuesday in Cincinnati. She’ll resume club play with the Red Stars on Sept. 25 against top-ranked Portland Thorns.