A once-in-a-generation talent! The future of U.S. women’s soccer!! The female Christian Pulisic!!! About the only thing that Mallory Pugh hasn’t been called since she scored a goal in her USWNT debut as a 17-year-old is Lady Pelé.
Three years later, Pugh brushes off those accolades as if they were u12 defenders. “I try to ignore all that outside noise,” she says. “It’s not my dream to be the future of U.S. Soccer. I just want to be Mal, the player I’m meant to be, and not all these labels people put on you.”
Looking at the baby-faced Pugh—who still travels with her purple monkey blanket—it’s hard to believe that the five-foot-three midfielder is now a grizzled veteran who has evolved into one of the USWNT’s most menacing attacking threats and a favorite of the team’s young SheBelieves Nation.
“At my age, it’s definitely super weird to have little girls come up and say they idolize me when they’re only a few years younger,” she says.
Pugh herself had no soccer idols until she reported to u12 national camp and first heard the ballad of the 99ers. “I wasn’t even born when they won the World Cup,” she says almost bashfully, “but then I saw the famous shot of Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey. And, of course, I heard all about the legendary Mia Hamm—and I wanted to be like Mia.”
But unlike Hamm, who had a storied career at the University of North Carolina, Pugh decided to bypass college soccer and go straight from high school to the pros—signing last year with the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League.
If she was intimidated by the faster and more physical play of the professional game, Pugh never betrayed any stage fright. “I don’t tend to get frazzled,” she says with the blithe self-confidence of someone who once scored nine goals in a youth game. “To me, it’s super cool playing with veterans like Alex [Morgan] and Pinoe [Megan Rapinoe]. When I’m on the field, I don’t think about the age gap with my teammates. I’m just out there looking to score goals or put others in a position to score them.”
Possessed of sick dribbling skills—it’s not for nothing that her all-time favorite player is Ronaldhino—Pugh skitters like a waterbug along the surface, all jinking verve and terrifying quickness.
“Speed kills but technical speed absolutely annihilates defenders,” says Hamm, whose incendiary pace fueled the national team for 17 years. “Mallory Pugh is for real.”
Knowing Pugh’s allergic reaction to superlatives, I don’t mention Hamm’s encomium to her. Nor do I pass along Rapinoe’s verbal bouquet. “Mal has real badass potential,” the U.S. co-captain says. “She’s still very young and finding the areas on the field where she can dominate.”
All of which means that for Mal Pugh, this World Cup could be super fun.