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Since she was just twelve years old, Mal Pugh has been fully immersed in the developmental system of U.S. Soccer. Now, at 22, she’s had her first major disappointment within that program after not making the 20-person Olympic qualifying roster for Tokyo earlier this year. As bewildering as that decision was for many USWNT fans, more surprising may be how maturely Pugh responded to receiving such a setback. In a recent conversation with her teammate Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast, Pugh opens up about how the news hit her while also reflecting on her accelerated soccer trajectory.

Pugh first fell in love with the game while tagging along to her older sister’s practices and matches. It was her joy in playing and constant practice that resulted in her skills developing at a break-neck pace. By the time she was twelve, she was a member of the U-14 national team. At fourteen, she was on the U-17 national team, and by sixteen she had already been called up to the U-20 squad. When she debuted for the senior USWNT at 17 years old, she was the youngest player to earn her first cap since Heather O’Reilly in 2002. Not only did she score in that debut match, but she went on to become the youngest USWNT player to ever score an Olympic goal when she masterfully found the back of the net in the 59th minute to put the U.S. up 2-1 against Colombia at the 2016 Rio Games.

With that goal, Mallory “Mal” Pugh fully assumed the mantle of the next USWNT superstar; just 18 years old, she was widely considered the future of the program. But playing behind the likes of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Tobin Heath has its challenges. Most obviously, that’s a boatload of talent fighting for a limited number of spots. And when you add in Christen Press and Carli Lloyd, it’s no wonder Pugh was disappointed with her minimal playing time during the 2019 World Cup Championship.

But she found a way to accept her role, soaking up the opportunity to learn from and compete with the greats. Displaying a maturity well beyond her years, she admits to O’Hara, “Obviously I wanted to play more, but it wasn’t my time to.”

For her entire career, Pugh has been advancing upon soccer superstardom on an unwavering path. Only in the last couple years, as she neared ever closer to the zenith, has that path curved unexpectedly. First, when she was relegated to a supporting role at the 2019 World Cup, and most recently when she found out from new USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski that she did not make the Olympic Qualifying roster. It was the first time in her life she had ever been cut, and later that same day, without any advance warning, she found out she had been traded from her Washington Spirit NWSL team to Sky Blue FC.

Pugh’s early career stumble may seem inexplicable at first, and yet it follows the usual pattern of a child prodigy adjusting to the big stage. As a rising star always outperforming the rest of her age group, it was easy for Pugh to play free and daringly. She had nothing to lose. But when she arrived at the upper echelon, and everyone around her was ridiculously talented, too, the pressure to perform and the consequences if she didn’t became imposing factors.

Pugh tells O’Hara she’s always had a rather natural immunity to outsiders’ expectations, but is still learning to manage the pressure she puts on herself.

“I’ve always been very, very, very, very hard on myself,” she admits. Playing under the punishing voice of this internal critic the past couple years has affected her on-field performance.

After suffering the initial gut punch from not making the Olympic roster and then being traded, Pugh quickly arrived at a surprisingly optimistic viewpoint.

“I just had this deep sense like I knew I was going to be okay,” she tells O’Hara. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh this is the end.’ In fact, I was like, ‘No. This is the beginning.’”

And when Andonovski invited her to join the team for training camp as a practice player it was an automatic yes for Pugh.

“I went into camp and I feel like that was honestly the first time in a very long time that I was able to feel free again on the field,” she recalls to O’Hara, “I killed it at that training.”

For the first time in a long time, Mal Pugh felt like herself on the field: free, joyful, and bold. She had successfully quieted the inner critic, and her on-field performance soared. Looking ahead, she is eager to apply what she’s learned about herself in pursuit of her current goal: to resecure her spot on the USWNT.

Her less tangible, long term goal: “To be just an inspiration and be a light in this game and this industry.”

With the wisdom and poise she has demonstrated in response to her first major career heartbreak, she seems well on her way to achieving that.

Listen to Mallory Pugh’s full conversation with Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast here.