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After a year of injuries, Mallory Pugh poised for reboot in 2021 with USWNT and with Chicago Red Stars

Healthy Real Colorado alum earns an invitation to pivotal women’s national team camp

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Coloradoan Mallory Pugh has transversed her fair share of mountains tops and valleys during her short, yet meteoric career with the senior U.S. Women’s National Team and as a member of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

Her successes with the Lady Yanks include:

  • Named U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year in 2015
  • Captaining the 2016 U.S. FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup squad
  • Youngest player to ever score for the USA at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics
  • Earning Women’s World Cup medal in 2019

Concurrent, in the NWSL Pugh was:

  • The first pick by the Washington DC Spirit in the 2017 Distribution Draft
  • Finalist for NWSL Rookie of the Year in 2017
  • Named 2017 Washington Spirit Most Valuable Player

But with her successes have come setbacks. Her nose-for-the-goal style of play led to a string of unfortunate injuries, long recovery periods, and perhaps, the falling behind in fitness and performance. To that end, stiff competition from within the rising rank and file has also confronted her.

Mallory Pugh strained her right hamstring in a national team friendly against Korea in November 2017.
John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

2019-2020: From the recognized to the not-so-distinguished

Fresh off of her summer of 2019 experiences—including hoisting the World Cup under then USWNT Head Coach Jill Ellis—Pugh was invited to the team’s annual January camp in 2020, along with 27 other invitees by a newly appointed U.S. Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski. Following the camp, Andonovski named his 20-player roster for the upcoming 2020 Concacaf Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Regrettably, Mallory Pugh’s name was not on his list.

“Mal was competitive, and she did well, but there were other players I believe that performed better,” he said. “I want to be clear that she’s a very talented player, she performed well, and she has a big future in front of her, so I’m pretty sure if she keeps on developing, going forward, she will be on this roster.”

The head coach continued, ”just because of her potential, I invited Mal to come and train with us even though she’s not on the roster, as a coaching staff, we want to be there for her and provide the best opportunity for her to develop.”

After three seasons with the Washington Spirit, where she had 40 appearances and found the back of the net 10 times (plus delivered four assists), Pugh was traded north to New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC on January 16, 2020.

The Highlands Ranch, Colorado, native made only one appearance with Sky Blue last season. She sustained a right hip injury while training during the off-season and it was significant enough to shelve her play both in the NWSL and for the USWNT for the balance of 2020. She missed an important USWNT camp in Denver and a subsequent camp and match in November in the Netherlands.

The Burgundy Wave asked USWNT Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski about Pugh’s status via a Zoom media call while the team was in the Netherlands. He said, “Mal has a little bit of an injury and she’s still recovering. She’s not 100 percent back from her injury. But she’s on track to be back probably in 2-3 weeks which is very exciting.”

Second trade in one year

At the turn of this year, Pugh learned she was traded from the Sky Blue FC to the Chicago Red Stars in exchange for two of Chicago’s high draft picks in the pending 2021 draft. Additionally, Sky Blue received a conditional 2022 first-round pick and an international slot for the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

“For the oldest and winningest pro women’s soccer club in the country, this is going to be a remarkable year,” said team owner Arnim Whisler. “We’re not messing around,” he added after the trade was complete.

The move to Chicago may afford Pugh a fresh start in the NWSL. During the press conference that announced the trade, Red Stars’ Head Coach Rory Dame stated, ‘‘I don’t know that there’s anybody of Mal’s level in the [upcoming NWSL] draft, outside of maybe one player that would be coming into the league.” Dames continued, “You take Mal’s experience internationally and in the league, there’s certainly nobody that matches that.”

The 22-year-old Pugh added, “I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to play for the Chicago Red Stars. The team has so many great players, including some of my United States Women’s National Team (USMNT) teammates, and I can’t wait to join them and work hard to help the club bring home a championship.” She also thanked ownership and her new coach, saying “I’ll see you all in the Windy City soon.”

Pugh will soon join up with USWNT teammates Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Morgan Gautrat, and Tierna Davidson—all of whom have excelled with the Red Stars. In the last full season, 2019, Chicago concluded their season with a 14-8-2 record. They moved through the NWSL playoff, however, fell short of winning the league championship against the North Carolina Courage.

“Obviously this year has presented a lot of difficulties and different injuries,” Pugh said soon after the trade was made public. “But it also has been a time where I’ve been able to heal my body and really take care of some nagging little injuries that I’ve been dealing with for the past, I don’t know, two years. I’ve just been thankful that I’ve been able to take the time, heal, and just get ready for 2021.”

Andonovski and U.S. Soccer staff have Pugh’s back

Earlier this month, Pugh was invited to the USWNT camp being held from January 9-22 in Orlando, Florida. She is a member of a 27-player roster that includes five forwards: Pugh, Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC), and Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage). The camp will conclude with two games against Colombia, on the 18th and 22nd. The matches will be played at Orlando’s downtown Exploria Stadium, home to MLS’ Orlando City SC and NWSL’s Orlando Pride.

During her injury recovery effort, the USWNT technical staff have supported Pugh throughout her rehabilitation. During a pre-camp virtual press conference, the Burgundy Wave asked Andonovski to elaborate.

“As a staff, we feel like we have devoted enough resources to help her get up to speed and stay up to speed, and give her the best platform to be prepared for the upcoming challenges,” said the head coach. “First, the High-Performance Staff gave her and monitored every training from the physical standpoint through GPS and communications with the trainers that she was working with. From the technical side, the Technical Staff gave her exercises and drills that she needed to execute, and she did execute them very well.”

He continued, “From a tactical standpoint, first, she was in on every video meeting that we had, like the recap of the Holland game. So when she comes into the camp, nothing is new for her. On top of that, with one of the staff members, she went through all the positional profiles for different positions in the front line that she is playing, and broke down every tactical aspect of the game for her position.”

Andonovski concluded, “And to be clear, we also did with Andy Sullivan and Meg Rapinoe to make sure so they are not behind, and so we don’t have to take two steps back before we take one step forward.”

Mallory Pugh signing autographs for young fans after receiving the City of Denver’s “challenge coin,” or key to the city, on April 3, 2019.
John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

The ball is at Pugh’s feet

Hopefully, a healthy, focused, and tenacious Pugh will reemerge and shine in this month’s camp and play against Colombia. From a very young age, Pugh has been a battler. She enjoys sharing the story of playing 2-v-1 soccer in her metro Denver backyard as a seven-year-old against her 12-year-old sister, Brianna, and her sister’s friend.

“It was so unfair,” Pugh told U.S. Soccer. The younger Pugh often came up short in the final score. But, ultimately, she knows it was good for her and her development as a soccer player. Since those days, Pugh has addressed her challenges head-on—and this month she will be tested again.

USWNT fans want to see her leverage any and all incremental successes and earn a roster spot on the upcoming 2021 SheBelieves Cup Tournament team. The tournament is intended to once again prepare the women’s squad for this summer’s Olympics in Japan.

After that, a good tournament showing just might place the gifted forward in a very good position to book a ticket to Tokyo and regain her international luster.