Only Getting Started
Unlike Press and McCaffrey, 17-year-old Mallory Pugh is what could be considered a veteran of the Youth National Team circuit. She was one of the top scorers in her U-17 WNT cycle and was named to the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup roster when she was just 16 years old. She is currently the U-20 WNT captain and most recently led the way for the USA at the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship in Honduras, helping the team win the title and secure a berth to the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup. And along the way she earned the Golden Boot and Golden Ball as the top scorer and top player of the tournament.
Despite her young age, Pugh is no stranger to coming up big during important moments. Her experiences have helped her mature faster, handle herself well, and understand the responsibilities that come with playing at the next level. It’s one of the many reasons the 17-year old was chosen to captain a team with several players who are older than her. It’s also not surprising why Pugh received her first invitation to the senior WNT camp just days after winning the CONCACAF title in Honduras.
“I remember I had just gotten back from Honduras and I was at the airport in Denver about to go home, and I checked my email and there it was,” said Pugh. “I was super excited and more nervous than anything. But it was a great opportunity and I was excited.”
A few weeks later, Pugh was off to California to join 26 senior WNT players at the 2016 January Camp. She knew some of the players, as they had been on youth teams together, but in general this was a whole new ball game for the youngster. At first, she will admit, it was rather intimidating. The speed of play was blazing and some of the players were 10 or more years older than her.
“This was different than what I was used to,” admitted Pugh. “I was nervous, oh yeah. I remembered walking into the meal room and just seeing everyone and just thinking, ‘oh my gosh, this is so weird.’ I was just quiet, but then as the week went on, and the soccer came along, everything came together and I loosened up.”
After three weeks of intense training, the U.S. women made the trip to San Diego to face the Republic of Ireland in their first friendly of the year. Pugh was told she would suit up, but she had no idea if she would see the field. Knowing it was her first time at a senior camp, her first time being involved at the senior level, she felt ok okay if she didn’t play. Maybe it wasn’t her time just yet.
But her moment came 58 minutes into the contest.
The referee raised her flag to announce a USA substitution and it was forward Alex Morgan who began jogging off the field. Morgan, who had scored earlier in the match, was celebrating her 100th game with the WNT, while Pugh was about to enter her first, a sweet contrast between two important moments in the career of two players, one reaching the century mark, and the other becoming the youngest player to debut for the U.S. WNT since 2005.
Pugh entered the match, got a touch on the ball and allowed the excitement she was feeling to overpower the nerves. Having her teammates around was important to her. They gave her an extra boost of confidence she didn’t know she needed. A few weeks prior she was guiding the U-20s and now the reigning World Cup champions were guiding her.
Then Pugh etched her name in the record books. In the 83rd minute, Christen Press hit a chipped cross assist that was headed home on a slashing run into the box by the 5-foot-4 Pugh. She became the youngest player to score for the U.S. in the last 16 years and the most recent addition to the first cap, first goal club.
“I don’t really remember how the goal happened,” said Pugh. “It was so fast, but I do remember not even looking to see if it went in. I just heard the crowd go crazy and I ran straight to Press. The fact that she scored on her first cap and I did too… I could just tell when I hugged her that she understood what had happened. She had the biggest smile on her face because she had been there and had done that too.”
It wasn’t just Press who was smiling. Everyone hoped they had witnessed the beginning of a special career.