Mallory Pugh burst onto the women’s soccer scene as a teen sensation, receiving her first call up to the senior USWNT at 17 years old. Since then, her career has taken plenty of twists and turns as a veteran of the game at just 23.
Pugh was born into a family of athletes, raised alongside her older sister Brianna in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. The star forward credits her sister for introducing her to the game of soccer at a young age.
“When I was younger, I always looked up to her and I always wanted to be just like my sister,” Pugh told Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast. “So she was playing soccer and I was like ‘well I want to play soccer too.’”
The early introduction to the sport paid off, with Pugh quickly becoming a soccer wunderkind. Pugh remembers being called into a U-14 national team camp when she was still just in seventh grade. By high school, Pugh was a mainstay in the youth national team system, with a USWNT senior roster spot on the horizon.
In her final two years of high school, the young star captured the Golden Boot award at the U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament, as well as the Gatorade National Player of the Year and U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year awards.
Pugh’s early success earned her a call up to the senior USWNT team at just 17 years old, an experience she recalls to O’Hara as being “so weird.” Her first camp with the team, however, ended in success, with Pugh remembering feeling as though she had nothing to lose and playing with freedom. While the hype was palpable, Pugh says she learned not to overthink things and block out external pressure at a young age.
Much was made about Pugh’s decision to forgo collegiate soccer and pursue a professional soccer career. At first, the 17-year-old couldn’t see herself in a pro league and decided to join UCLA’s team. After three months, however, Pugh knew it was time to leave the Bruins and forward her career, without ever stepping on the pitch for UCLA. The decision was one she didn’t make lightly, agonizing over whether to join the NWSL for over a year before finally making a move.
“I’ve always told myself I want to be able to inspire younger generations,” Pugh told O’Hara. “I do feel like me stepping out and kind of having to be bold and courageous with that, it did maybe send that signal or send that message that females and people in women’s sports… can leave school early and go professional.”
Pugh joined the Washington Spirit in 2017, notching six goals in her debut season and ending the season as a finalist for Rookie of the Year.
Here's some nifty 1v1 footwork by Mal Pugh to shake her defender. pic.twitter.com/sy5B2tzVg0— Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) July 1, 2017
Here's some nifty 1v1 footwork by Mal Pugh to shake her defender. pic.twitter.com/sy5B2tzVg0
Pugh made her mark on the world stage when she clinched a spot on the 2016 Rio Olympics roster, becoming the youngest U.S. player to ever score during the Games at 18 years old. Though the United States were bounced in the tournament’s quarterfinals, Rio served as a turning point in Pugh’s career, solidifying her place in the USWNT conversation.
Receiving consistent call-ups in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, Pugh made the 23-player France roster. For any 21-year-old, simply making the USWNT World Cup team would’ve been a career-defining moment, but for Pugh, the major tournament presented a new challenge for the soccer prodigy. Playing fewer minutes than she expected, Pugh had to embrace her role as a support player rather than a starter.
“Obviously, I wanted to play more, but it wasn’t my time to,” Pugh told O’Hara. “I definitely had to change my mindset and look at it a different way.”
Alongside her teammates, Pugh earned a World Cup title, her first senior major tournament championship.
The year following her run in France, Pugh’s career entered unchartered territory, with the forward left off a USWNT roster for the first time since initially being called into the USWNT. Pugh did not make then new coach Vlatko Andonovski’s Olympic qualifying roster, telling O’Hara, “It was pretty rough, but I am a strong, strong believer in everything happens for a reason.”
After a bronze-medal run in Tokyo, Andonovski started bringing in a range of non-Olympic players into USWNT camps, including Pugh. The Chicago forward was invited to a series of National Team friendlies in Australia but opted out of the Matildas’ matchup. Andonovski did, however, say her decision not to participate would not impact her invitation to the team’s first camp of 2022 in January.
While Pugh dealt with falling out of the USWNT ranks, the young star also battled a series of nagging injuries and a handful of trades, playing with three different NWSL teams in the course of three years. In January 2020, Pugh was traded to Gotham FC (formally Sky Blue FC) before landing in Chicago for the 2021 season.
The moving around certainly impacted Pugh’s rhythm before she found her footing with the Red Stars. The 2021 NWSL season served as a renaissance for Pugh, who notched four goals and four assists, ending the year as MVP runner-up. Pugh also led the Red Stars to a surprise NWSL Championship game appearance, where they fell to the Washington Spirit in a closely contested battle.
Although Pugh missed the team’s semifinal match against Portland due to COVID-19 protocols and left the final early with an injury, Pugh’s season was a resounding success.
Still just 23 years old, Pugh has plenty of time to get back on track and continue her rise as one of the world’s best young talents.
💥 CUE MAL PUGH 💥First playoff game, first playoff goal 🤌#CHIvNJNY | https://t.co/bONPZnnmCJ | #NWSL21 pic.twitter.com/uyuHikPPz2— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 7, 2021
💥 CUE MAL PUGH 💥First playoff game, first playoff goal 🤌#CHIvNJNY | https://t.co/bONPZnnmCJ | #NWSL21 pic.twitter.com/uyuHikPPz2
Pugh ended 2021 announcing her engagement to partner Dansby Swanson, shortstop for the Atlanta Braves.
The soccer star’s future with the USWNT is still very much a topic of conversation, with the World Cup cycle about to get underway. Pugh will have to compete against a deep forward pool to stamp her mark on the roster after missing an exciting Australian series in late 2021.