We eagerly took our seats in the nosebleed section at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., but as soon as #9 came onto the pitch, our teenaged chatter abruptly ceased. Mia Hamm had arrived. She was a founding member and star forward for the Washington Freedom, part of the Women’s United Soccer Association. The stadium was by no means full (and the league ended up folding in 2003) but the small crowd buzzed with excitement. Growing up in a small town that didn’t even have a soccer program until I was in high school, Hamm was the only soccer player many of us had ever heard of. Watching the best female soccer player in the world easily out-maneuver the defense to score a goal is an experience none of us would ever forget.
Fifteen years later, I was at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado for my second women’s soccer game. The U.S. Women’s National Team hosted Japan in a rematch of the 2015 World Cup Final. When tickets went on sale, they sold out in 10 minutes; standing-room-only tickets were going for $75+ online. The evening of the match, the stands were filled with men, women, girls, and boys rocking U.S. jerseys and American flags; they sang, danced, and screamed when a USWNT player came close.
In what could only be considered as pomp and circumstance, a giant “One Nation, One Team” banner graced the middle of the field, with the Japanese and American flag on either side. As the U.S. players were announced, the stadium sent up a roar unlike anything I had heard. Of course, there were the big names everyone was excited about – Hope Solo and Alex Morgan – but there was also a new name that, at least in her home state of Colorado, got just as much attention: Mallory Pugh, the high school phenom who surprised everyone when in January, at 17 years old, she made her first appearance for the senior squad.
Born and raised near Denver, Pugh has always loved soccer. She started playing at the age of four, and would sit on the bench and watch her older sister Brianna play with Real Colorado, a team Pugh would later join as well. The Real Colorado coach, Jared Spires, remembers, “she would watch the whole game. At seven years old, you wouldn’t expect that. And she loved to be around the team.” Even now, Pugh regularly mentions her older sister as a role model and her main inspiration for wanting to work hard and play competitively, much like Hamm was inspired by her own older brother.
Pugh began to realize her potential as a professional player when she started playing for a U-11 team. “That’s when everything just got competitive for me,” Pugh now acknowledges. “I think for every young girl, their competitive career usually starts at U-11.” From there, she went on to represent the United States for the country’s U-17 and U-20 teams. In U-17, she led the team with five goals and three assists in the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship. At 16 years old she won the Golden Boot in the 2015 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship, and also served as one of the team’s captains. That same year she was named the U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year and the Gatorade National Girl Soccer Player of the Year, playing for both her high school team and the Colorado Real Club team and still managing to keep her grades up.
And then, on January 23, 2016, Pugh was called up for a USWNT friendly vs Ireland, making her the youngest player to debut for the United States in the last 11 years (Mia Hamm holds that record, joining the team at the age of 15 in 1987). Pugh scored in her first cap to help the United States win 5-0. Her second cap came on February 10, when she made history as the youngest female player to play for the USWNT in an Olympic Qualifying match. Pugh’s first start was the next game, vs Puerto Rico.
USWNT head coach Jill Ellis has been impressed with what she has seen with Pugh:
“I give a lot of credit to Mal because it’s two parts when you come in as a young player – it’s definitely the soccer part and you have to earn the respect of the players on the pitch, but the other big part is social – yes – you have to fit in and be a part and she’s done that seamlessly. I think Mal is mature for her age.
Her play on the field has established her as a valid and legitimate member of this team, and they take care of her as they do each other”
When Hamm was growing up, there were not the same club and camp opportunities for women in the United States as there are today; Hamm herself was on the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup team in 1991. She often played sports with the boys because there were so few opportunities for girls. Hamm told TIME, “I would probably say if we hadn’t lived in Italy when I was 2 or 3, my dad would have been like, ‘What is this game? What are these kids playing?’ because he didn’t grow up around it.”
Since then, the popularity of soccer has grown significantly in the United States. As of 2012, 30 percent of households in the United Stated had at least one person who played soccer, and according to Jean Williams’ A Beautiful Game: International Perspectives on Women’s Football, the number of girls playing soccer in high school had increased from just 10,000 in 1976 to 122,000 by 1990.
When asked about how youth soccer is different now than when she was growing up, Hamm told Soccer America, “I didn’t specialize until I made the national team. I still played basketball and a bunch of different sports, really kind of followed what my friends were playing in the season that was being organized.”
While Pugh has always loved soccer, she was a great all-around athlete, who also played basketball and ran track. But in her freshman year, Pugh broke her femur playing soccer for Real Colorado, possibly a result of overuse from all the different activities she was involved with. The injury was a turning point for Pugh, and she decided to focus solely on soccer from that point on.
And it is likely the experience that Pugh was able to gain through Real Colorado that has prepared her for playing at this level, and presumably, the Olympics. Michelle French, head coach of the U-20 team told the Denver Post, “her mobility, creativity, the way that she reads the game is pretty high class”.For many young women, it would be overwhelming and difficult to fit into a senior level team, but Pugh doesn’t let the pressure get to her: “I feel pressure but I think my personality is to just kind of shake it off and try to go out there and have fun. I think that’s what’s best for me to cope with that and try to go out there and do my best.”
Coach Ellis agrees, “There’s still some fun moments with her, but I think overall she’s handled it really well … She’s done remarkably well and is a very popular part of our team.”
Even though the match on June 2nd ended in a 3-3 tie, Pugh played a significant role by assisting Alex Morgan for the first U.S. goal and repeatedly outrunning Japanese players to create goal-scoring opportunities. As the USWNT continues to prepare for the Olympics in Rio this summer, Pugh will no doubt be an important part of the team.
After Pugh’s start in the international friendly vs. Japan, Ellis echoed that sentiment:
“Mal showed great versatility today. We played her central, we also pushed her out wide. She’s just a player – her separation, her willingness to take on, her first touch, she’s certainly playing beyond her years. But the fact that she could last 90 minutes – I know she’s from here – but you know I thought her work rate didn’t drop off. A really good performance from Mal tonight for sure.”
The next step for Mallory Pugh is to make the roster for Rio. After the retirement of Abby Wambach, and with forwards Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez taking a break, it’s the perfect time for Pugh to step up and claim her spot. And with two goals and six assists in her first 12 caps, there is a strong case for her name to be one of the final 18.
I don’t remember the final score of that game back in high school, but I do know how lucky I am to have seen Hamm play. And I’m sure that someday in 2031, there will be a woman who won’t remember that the USWNT almost won that friendly vs. Japan, but will never forget how fortunate she was to have seen Mallory Pugh play.