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Not Making the Olympic Qualifying Roster Was Exactly What Mal Pugh Needed


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.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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