Mallory Pugh has established herself as a mainstay on the USWNT's attack after being left off the squad's Olympic roster in 2021. (Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Each month in the leadup to the World Cup, Just Women’s Sports will make the case for one player as most essential to the success of the USWNT in 2023.

The World Cup is less than a year away, which means the U.S. women’s national team has important roster decisions ahead. The squad is littered with stars, but who can the USWNT simply not afford to play without to have a chance at repeating as World Cup champions?

It’s a nearly impossible task to pinpoint which U.S. player is the most essential to the squad’s success, with cases to be made across the roster as the team readies for the tournament in Australia and New Zealand next July.

Mallory Pugh, for one, has emerged as an irreplaceable piece of coach Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

The 24-year-old forward has undergone a career renaissance since she was left off the Tokyo Olympic team last summer, producing dominant performances for both club and country.

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

Pugh has logged eight goals and five assists through 11 regular-season appearances with the Chicago Red Stars, putting her at the center of the NWSL MVP conversation for the second straight year.

On the international stage, Pugh has been equally impressive, notching six goals and seven assists in 12 USWNT appearances so far in 2022.

“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.”

While Pugh’s stat line is evidence enough of her greatness, what makes the soccer wunderkind truly exceptional isn’t measured as easily.

The striker’s work rate is one of the most remarkable on the USWNT, with Pugh often tracking back and across the field. Her commitment to the high press and triggering turnovers high up the pitch has paid dividends for the USWNT attack.

“I think pressing is a great opportunity to transition and attack,” Pugh said after the USWNT’s win over Costa Rica at the Concacaf W Championship in July. “So I think if you look at it that way, like defense is offense, I think that’s just part of our identity.”

Pugh’s defensive prowess is critical for Andonovski’s system’s success, which relies heavily on offensive pressure.

“We want to create these attacking transition moments to be able to create and just keep going. We want teams just to feel that pressure,” Pugh said.

Her dedication to doing the thankless work off the ball to make Andonovski’s press tick contributes to Pugh’s case as the most essential player on the current USWNT squad.