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How Mallory Pugh rediscovered success within disappointment

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

A year ago, Mallory Pugh didn’t make the U.S. women’s national team Olympic roster. Now, over 10 months out from the 2023 World Cup, she’s one of the USWNT’s most relied upon attackers and is making a case for being the best player in the NWSL.

Currently in fourth place in the NWSL Golden Boot race with eight goals, the 2021 MVP nominee has been widely considered a frontrunner for this year’s top award. Across all competitions — the NWSL Challenge Cup, the NWSL regular season and international games — Pugh has 18 goals.

Her secret for rising back to success has been simple: staying present and enjoying every moment.

There’s no stopping Mallory Pugh when she’s having fun. That joy, after all, is how she became so good in the first place.

Before she was even old enough to play on her own team, Pugh was obsessed with soccer. Having the ball at her feet brought her so much delight that she didn’t even care about the rules of the game. She’d tag along to her older sister’s training sessions, where she and her dad would kill the hour and a half on an empty field with a full-sized net just up the hill. Pugh vividly remembers the day she kicked the ball over the crossbar.

“No, no,” her dad would tell her. “You’re supposed to hit it into the goal.”

But Pugh didn’t care. That was the first time she’d lifted the ball in the air. She was living in the moment, and it was fun.

When she started attending her sister’s games, Pugh would sit on the team’s bench, intently watching the older athletes and how they played, waiting for halftime when she could tear onto the empty field and try the moves herself.

At 13, she was playing on her own team for Real Colorado. Her talent stood out enough that club president Lorne Donaldson decided to bring her along to Portland, Ore. for the Manchester United Premier Tournament, one of the biggest U-14 tournaments the club could enter into. Pugh was younger and smaller than the others, but Donaldson didn’t want her to overthink the opportunity.

“We just gave her the freedom and said, ‘Hey, listen, just go enjoy it,’” he said. “That’s when we really started to realize she had something special.”

As Pugh started dominating her club games, the U.S. youth national program took notice.

Once back home, players from younger Real Colorado teams, like Pugh’s future USWNT teammate Sophia Smith, would go to her games just to watch her play.

Pugh rapidly rose up the ranks, all the way to a global stage in 2016. At 17, she made her senior national team debut, becoming the youngest player to do so since Heather O’Reilly in 2002. After scoring her first international goal in that game, she also became the youngest player to make a Concacaf Olympic qualifying roster. She then went on to the 2016 Rio Olympics and, three years later, won a World Cup title with the USWNT.

It appeared there was no stopping Mallory Pugh.

But then it all came to a halt.

Mallory Pugh is in the midst of a renaissance after she was left off the USWNT’s Olympic roster last summer. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

At the end of 2020, Pugh was traded to the Chicago Red Stars, her third NWSL team in three years. In January, she suffered an injury in USWNT camp. Summer came, and after some inconsistency on the pitch, she was cut from the Olympic roster.

The decision was tough for USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who valued Pugh’s potential but felt she needed “a wake-up call.”

“Not going to the Olympics was devastating and everything for me, but I feel like it was exactly what I needed,” Pugh told Just Women’s Sports.

Following the setback, she spent a lot of time behind the scenes working on herself mentally and physically as well as on her technical and tactical game. Mostly though, she spent time with her sports psychologist, rediscovering a mindset of staying present and having fun.

Chicago became the perfect fit for Pugh. With the Red Stars, Pugh has the ability to play freely and conquer backlines with her uncatchable runs into the box, where she calmly slots the ball into the bottom corner. The forward can drift where she wants and dictate the attack as needed.

“It’s fun for me,” she said this week after scoring two goals and making two assists in a 4-0 win over Racing Louisville. “Having the freedom to do that and reading off of everyone as a whole, it’s been good.”

As someone who went pro right after high school and was introduced to the NWSL through young teams like the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC, Pugh is grateful to play alongside other experienced players who help take some of the pressure off. With Chicago, Pugh can focus on just playing, like she did on that field up the hill in Colorado.

“I feel like I’ve grown into who I was supposed to be as a player and a person,” she said. “Deep down, I always knew how I wanted to play and you would see little glimpses of that. But I feel like over the past few years, it’s been a learning process of how to get back to that and grow into that.”

Enjoying herself and playing arguably the best soccer the world has seen from her, it’s easy to assume Pugh might consider this year the favorite of her career, but she’s not ranking it just yet. She’ll know better at the end of the season, when she’s had time to reflect on her growth.

“Last year was one of my favorite years, but I wouldn’t say that in the middle of it,” she said.

What she can pinpoint is her favorite goal of the season. Against Iceland in late February, thanks to Catarina Macario’s defensive efforts in the midfield, she and Pugh broke free in a two-v-two toward the net. They passed the ball back and forth effortlessly through the opponent’s half until they were in the box. Macario gave the final touch to Pugh, who one-timed it past the goalkeeper.

Pugh singles out that goal because of the lead-up and Macario’s pass, which Pugh described as perfect, but it also symbolized more than that. Andonovski went into that tournament with the intention of seeing how Pugh, Macario and Smith worked together up front. That goal was Pugh’s third in two games, and afterward Anondovski described her as the future of the national team, saying a player would have to do something incredible to take her starting spot.

“I’m so happy with Mal’s performance,” Andonovski said in March after the SheBelieves Cup. “I’m so happy with her form, and I know I was sitting in the same spot a year and a half ago trying to explain what Mal needs in order to be back on the national team … I’m so proud of her, the way she took it. She accepted the challenge and came back and proved that she can do this.”

To Andonovski, it’s obvious that Pugh enjoys the game more than she did a year ago. With an abundance of new faces on the USWNT, she’s also taken on an enhanced role.

Being a verbal leader doesn’t come easily to Pugh, 24 years old but already a seven-year USWNT vet. She’d rather leave that part to players like Kelley O’Hara.

“I think it’s definitely a learning process, but I also think it’s an opportunity to carry on what the national team means,” Pugh said. “I think too with the Red Stars, I wouldn’t say my leadership style’s verbal. I think there’s definitely players that are like your captains, who speak to players and stuff, but I would say mine — I don’t know — I try and like, play … just setting the standard. Not setting it, but holding the standard and meeting the standard. I think you have to do that first.

“Everyone leads in their own way. To me, I feel like leadership is everyone can be a leader. It’s just about doing it first yourself, and then soon people will follow.”

On Saturday and Tuesday, Pugh will once again represent the USWNT in Kansas City and Washington, D.C. for a two-game friendly series against Nigeria.

As the U.S. gears up for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next summer, Pugh’s sights remain set on where they’ve been for the last year.

“I think the biggest [goal] for me and what I’ve learned is just to have fun,” she said. “Just to enjoy every moment, and every game that we get to play and every training, just being very grateful for that.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

USWNT to face Costa Rica in final Olympic send-off

uswnt sophia smith and tierna davidson celebrate at shebeilves cup 2024
The USWNT will play their final pre-Olympic friendly against Costa Rica on July 16th. (Photo by Greg Bartram/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that the USWNT will play their last home game on July 16th in the lead-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The 2024 Send-Off Match against Costa Rica will take place at Washington, DC’s Audi Field — home to both the Washington Spirit and DC United — at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 16th. The friendly rounds out a four-game Olympic run-up campaign under incoming head coach Emma Hayes’ side, with the last two set to feature the finalized 2024 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team roster.

Hayes will appear on the USWNT sideline for the first time this June, helming the team as they embark on a two-game series against Korea Republic hosted by Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado on June 1st followed by Allianz Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4th. 

The team is then scheduled to meet a talented Mexico squad on July 13th at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Olympic-bound lineup will attempt to rewrite February’s shocking 2-0 loss to El Tri Femenil in the group stages of this year’s Concacaf W Gold Cup. And while clear roster favorites have emerged from both of this year’s Gold Cup and SheBelives Cup rosters, a spate of recent and recurring injuries means making it to the Olympics is still largely anyone’s game.

Broadcast and streaming channels for the USWNT's final July 16th friendly at Audi Field include TNT, truTV, Universo, Max, and Peacock.

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA start to serve as 2024 Olympic tryout

Clark of the Indiana Fever poses for a photo with Lin Dunn and Christie Sides during her introductory press conference on April 17, 2024
The talented Fever rookie is still in the running for a ticket to this summer's Paris Olympics. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The USA Basketball Women's National Team is still considering Caitlin Clark for a spot on the Paris Olympics squad, says selection committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. 

On Monday, Rizzotti told the AP that the committee will be evaluating the college phenom’s Olympic prospects by keeping a close eye on her first few weeks of WNBA play with Indiana.

The move is somewhat unconventional. While Clark was invited to participate in the 14-player national team training camp held earlier this month — the last camp before Team USA’s roster drops — she was unable to attend due to it coinciding with Iowa’s trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Judging by the immense talent spread throughout the league in what might be their most hyped season to date, competition for a piece of the Olympic pie could be fiercer than ever before.

"You always want to introduce new players into the pool whether it's for now or the future," said Rizzotti. "We stick to our principles of talent, obviously, positional fit, loyalty and experience. It's got to be a combination of an entire body of work. It's still not going to be fair to some people."

Of course, Clark isn’t the first rookie the committee has made exceptions for. Coming off an exceptional college season that saw her averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for UConn, Breanna Stewart was tapped to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil less than two weeks after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm. Eight years prior, fellow No. 1 pick Candace Parker punched her ticket to the 2008 Games in Beijing just two weeks after making her first appearance for the L.A. Sparks.

In the lead-up to Paris’ Opening Ceremony on July 26th, USA Basketball Women’s National Team is scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games. They'll first go up against the WNBA's finest at the July 20th WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix before facing Germany in London on July 23rd.

While an official roster announcement date hasn’t yet been issued, players won’t find out if they’ve made this year’s Olympic cut until at least June 1st.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

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