MAL PUGH WILL cringe when she sees the headline of this story. I know this because in the hour and a half we've been chatting at her apartment, she's already cringed at least half a dozen times. She squirms when I point out that she's been anointed the savior/prodigy/future of soccer ever since the U.S. women's national team discovered her at the age of 12. She shudders when I mention that I heard she was so good as a teenager, she had to practice with boys (a relatable response for anyone who's ever been around high school boys). To be sure, Pugh is proud of what she's accomplished -- at 21, she's notched 50 caps with the USWNT and will play a key role in the upcoming World Cup -- but she's never really liked being called a wunderkind, an ephemeral and cliché description for an athlete who has no intention of being either.
"I feel like it's starting to go away, which I'm very thankful about -- the age part," she says, sitting up a little straighter on her kitchen stool.
And then I too cringe, because I know she's probably wrong. It isn't going away. Come June, when the USWNT begins its campaign in France, we're going to see a lot of Mallory Pugh, and when we do, we'll hear a lot about her age. It's hard to ignore. Sitting across from her in the apartment she shares with two of her Washington Spirit teammates, I'm struck by how young she looks, perched at her kitchen island in a tracksuit and Uggs, face free of makeup, hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Even her apartment, which is sparsely decorated -- the most distinctive item, aside from a cluster of suitcases with U.S. Soccer stickers, is a beanbag chair -- feels like a dorm room. Which makes sense, given that she'd probably be in college today if she hadn't gone pro at the age of 18.
The future-of-the-sport stuff will likely stick for a while, and it's not just because Pugh was called up to the U20 national team at the age of 16 and went on to become the youngest player for the USWNT to score an Olympic goal, or because she scored 15 of them by the time she was old enough to drink. Rather, it's because amid all of that, she blazed her own path. After briefly enrolling at UCLA, Pugh decided to forgo NCAA soccer and enter the National Women's Soccer League, and she was later drafted by the Spirit. Going pro early is the norm for American men; not long ago, Pennsylvania whiz kid Christian Pulisic decamped for Germany's Borussia Dortmund at the age of 16. But women in the U.S. rarely make the leap.
"I think it's fantastic," USWNT head coach Jill Ellis says. "We have to get to a point in this country where our top players are seeking out the most challenging environments."
Ellis watched Pugh for the first time at a U14 national camp and was immediately taken by the young player, a fearless attacker who wove through packs of older girls like she was riding a scooter in traffic. Since then, Ellis says Pugh has improved both her technique and her tactical ability. In the World Cup, she will likely come off the bench -- the team is stacked up front, with Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath on the roster -- but Ellis sees the team's youngest attacker as a potent weapon. When I ask her what role Pugh might play in France, she paints a picture. "You're in the 70th minute and you're exhausted and suddenly Mal Pugh is running at you," she says, adding, "She doesn't have to take the weight of the world on her shoulders right now."
That might not be the case for long. While Pugh's team is a co-favorite with host France to win the World Cup, the countries in the USWNT's rearview mirror are closer than they appear. In recent years, America's younger squads have struggled on the global stage, and it's conceivable -- likely, even -- that the national team, which was knocked out of the last Olympics earlier than ever, won't be the betting favorite in 2023. The reasons are complex and hardly merit the sort of hand-wringing that's beset the men's program. But they have compelled the architects behind America's soccer strategy to search for answers, looking both overseas, where foreign clubs are pouring money into their women's teams, and at home, where a reluctant star in Washington, D.C., defied the status quo.
AS WITH MANY athletic prodigies, Pugh's origin story has elements that feel ripped from the pages of a comic book. She wasn't born with superhuman strength (growing up, she was kind of a runt) or speed (older sister Bri was faster), but she possessed a singular quasi-mythic trait: She was practically impervious to pain. "It was kind of scary," says her father, Horace. He rattles off his daughter's injuries: As a small girl, Pugh smashed her front teeth, crashed into a tree while snowboarding (she refused to let the snow patrol take her down the hill) and fell off the monkey bars, which is how she acquired the Harry Potter-like scar on her forehead. Horace recalls an instance when Mal was feeling mild discomfort, so he took her to the hospital, where a doctor was shocked to discover that the little girl's eardrum had burst. "We were like, 'Oh my god, we're bad parents,'" Horace says. "But she didn't give any signs!"
One day, when Pugh was 12, she was playing in the garage of her family's house in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, with a friend who had hooked her shorts to a pulley the family used to hang bicycles from the ceiling. Pugh ascended about 10 feet, slipped off the hook and crashed to the floor, landing on her hand. When she showed her father the injury -- her wrist looked like a bent twig -- he was horrified and told her she couldn't play in her club team's tournament that weekend.
Pugh looked straight at her father and popped the bone back into place.
She ended up playing in the tournament in a brace swaddled in bubble wrap. "I think she scored, like, eight goals," her coach, Jared Spires, says with a laugh.
Pugh took up soccer when she was 4; by the time she was 6, Horace says, she already possessed a sophisticated understanding of the game. "At that age, they're all in this little bunch," he says, chuckling. "Mal figured out: 'Why be in there? The ball always pops out.' So she'd stand to the side." Sometimes, he and his wife, Karen, found their daughter in her bedroom, her pink Hello Kitty television tuned to Telemundo so she could watch international games (the only word she understood was gol). Later, when they bought her a computer, she'd watch videos of her idol, Ronaldinho, on YouTube.
"Ever since I was little, I always knew I wanted to be a professional soccer player," Pugh says. She grabs her phone off the counter and pulls up a snapshot of a page from her sixth-grade yearbook: Next to a photo of her younger, pigtail-wearing self -- she's smiling so wide you can see the missing tooth in the corner of her mouth -- is a quote: "I want to be on the USA soccer team and win a gold medal."
Around that time, the national team invited Pugh to one of its ID camps in Portland, Oregon, where she competed for a spot in the program. She said goodbye to her anxious parents at the gate and boarded a plane by herself for the first time. When she landed, she was intimidated: Almost everyone else at the camp was older, stronger, faster. "Honestly?" she says. "I thought the girls around me were just so much better than me." The coaches, who were impressed with Pugh's crafty speed, disagreed; a couple of weeks later, they invited her back.
Pugh quickly scaled the country's top youth teams, always playing with older girls, always pushing the limits of her abilities. The U.S. Soccer staffers charged with spotting the country's most promising young players developed a detailed plan for her, sort of a how-to manual for assembling the next Mia Hamm. After every camp, she'd come home with a laundry list of skills to work on in her free time; when it snowed, she made her father park the family's car outside so she could juggle in the garage. By the end of high school, she was told not to play with girls her age, so she practiced with the boys at Real Colorado, an experience she describes as enriching and, at times, embarrassing. "High school is just so awkward," she says, blushing. "I'd be like, 'Oh, he's super cute.'"
By then, she was already heralded as the next big thing. In 2015, she was named U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year and received the Golden Ball for best player and Golden Boot Award for scoring the most goals in the U20 CONCACAF tournament. When I ask if her self-doubt faded once the accolades started rolling in, she shakes her head. "It never came easy," she says. "It actually became harder." Every year, she climbed the ladder of elite competition like a video game character progressing through levels, always conquering and advancing, never hitting pause to settle alongside her peers. Over time, Pugh says, she learned how to sideline her doubts whenever she stepped onto the field, suppressing her own anxieties about being younger, smaller or lesser in some unknowable way. Perhaps that's why she loathes the wunderkind label so much: It's a reminder of something she's taught herself to forget.
In the months leading up to the 2015 World Cup, the USWNT played a friendly near her hometown in Colorado. Pugh and her teammates painted their faces and took pictures of Megan Rapinoe as the superstar forward walked by. "I was like, 'Oh my god -- she's so cool,'" Pugh says with a laugh, widening her eyes as she impersonates her teenage self. A few months after the U.S. won the Cup, Pugh, then 17, got the call. I ask her how she reacted when Coach Ellis invited her to the senior team's camp. She cracks up. "I thought, 'Oh s---.'"
At first, she felt like she was 12 years old again, tiptoeing into a cafeteria full of terrifying 14-year-old girls. "I was like, 'What am I doing?'" she says. "'I'm playing next to Tobin. I'm playing next to Pino. I'm playing next to Carli. What is happening?'"
A smile spreads across her face. "But also, I was like: 'I'm playing soccer.'"
Pugh made her national team debut the next January, scoring off a header in a friendly against Ireland. That July, Mia Hamm -- Mia! -- tweeted: "Speed kills but technical speed absolutely annihilates defenders. Mallory Pugh is for real." In August, Ellis brought Pugh to Rio. She was the only woman on the roster who wasn't already playing professional soccer and the second-youngest player in U.S. history to compete in the Olympics. She scored in her third game.
Before Pugh graduated from high school that year, there were rumors that she would renege on her commitment to UCLA to play instead for a French club, or head straight to the NWSL, which altered a rule to allow young U.S. national team players to enter the draft, seemingly designed to fast-track her into the league. But after delaying her enrollment so that she could compete in the U20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea, Pugh showed up at UCLA in January and did the things other players had always done. Took classes. Practiced. Went to frat parties. "There was a thought in my head," she explains. "'This is what other people do. Why do you think you're different?'" But as time went by, she realized that after years of punching up like a boxer facing opponents twice her size, she wasn't a normal college girl. A few months into the semester, she collapsed into bed one night and woke up convinced that it was time for her to leave.
THE FIFA WOMEN'S World Cup was established in 1991; since then, American women have played in four of the seven championship games and won three of them. The younger U.S. teams have had less success. After finishing second in the U17 World Cup in 2008, the Americans have either failed to qualify or lost in group play every year. This lag has elicited a variety of theories. While the U.S.'s population advantage seems insurmountable, many coaches believe that the lack of focused training in the States allows countries with fewer girls playing soccer, especially those in Asia, to compete before an athleticism gap kicks in. "If you look at our history, at the younger levels, we've always struggled internationally," says Anson Dorrance, the longtime coach of the vaunted North Carolina women's team and a former USWNT head coach. "The American players catch up once they get to college."
By then, some of the countries with strong girls teams begin to fall off; Pugh's team was knocked out of the U20 World Cup by North Korea, a country that's never made it past the quarterfinals in the World Cup. But other talented youth teams are starting to achieve longer-lasting success. "What you're seeing across Europe is that the federations are pouring resources into the women's game," Dorrance says. "It's putting these countries on much better footing, because the advantage they've always had is soccer marinates their entire culture."
Pugh agrees. "The rest of the world is catching up," she says. She was impressed earlier this year, she adds, when the USWNT played Spain, a team that has never advanced out of the group stage in the World Cup but has recently dominated at the youth levels. Across Europe, clubs like Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain are pouring money into their women's organizations, which nurture the young players who will eventually compete on national squads. Last year all 11 teams in England's FA Women's Super League became professional operations for the first time; Manchester City built a stadium in 2014 for its women's side, and Barclays just became the first title sponsor of the Super League.
"These countries -- Spain, France, Germany -- have environments that are really geared toward the professional player," Ellis says. "We still have top players who are playing [girls] their age. It's problematic."
The swell of investment has lured older American players to Europe. The USWNT's Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan signed deals to play in England and France; Crystal Dunn spent a year with Chelsea. In 2012, Lindsey Horan signed with Paris Saint-Germain straight out of high school, becoming the first USWNT member to bypass college soccer. Horan, who now plays for the NWSL's Portland Thorns, says going abroad was "the best experience of my life." But when I ask her if she thinks her experience will become the norm, she says no. "There's a lot of parents that won't allow it, which is unfortunate," she explains. "You're giving up a full-ride scholarship to an incredible school. You're risking a lot."
Like Horan, B.J. Snow, who heads youth technical development for the USWNT, thinks the number of women skipping college will be small at first. "We're talking about the top 1-percenters -- the elite of the elite," he says. But eventually, he says, their ranks will grow. "On the men's side, there are a million examples of players leaving at 14 or 15 to go to Europe, or leaving early to go to MLS -- the women's game is not far behind that." In January, 20-year-old defender Tierna Davidson, a USWNT member, left Stanford after her junior year to become the No. 1 overall pick by the NWSL's Chicago Red Stars. A month later, 13-year-old Olivia Moultrie sent shock waves through the soccer world by announcing she was signing a multiyear endorsement deal with Nike and forgoing her NCAA eligibility (she had committed to Dorrance's UNC team at the age of 11) to go pro.
Pugh left UCLA in 2017, a decision made easier by her own financial situation: The Washington Spirit selected her with a top pick that May, which meant that Pugh would earn six figures because U.S. Soccer subsidizes NWSL salaries for USWNT members. (She's also gained sponsorships from Nike, Gatorade and Neutrogena.) Still, after Pugh left for Washington, her first year as a pro was disorienting. She moved midseason. Her parents flew out to help her set up her utilities, assemble Ikea furniture and do other parent-y things; when they left, she found herself alone, sitting in a bare-bones apartment in the Maryland suburbs. Washington, which had just parted ways with USWNT stars Ali Krieger and Dunn, struggled that year, finishing in last place.
And yet despite the loneliness and the losses, she's quick to insist she doesn't regret her decision. "I don't look back," she says.
Pugh normally responds to questions in clipped sentences, with a practiced efficiency that suggests she's conserving her energy. But when I ask her what other girls might learn from her path, she offers a stream of thoughts, words pouring out like they've been bottled up. "You have to make yourself uncomfortable," she says. "That's what I, growing up, had to do. Yeah, I was comfortable playing with other girls. So I needed to play up, and I needed to play with the boys. And I needed to leave college to challenge myself. I learned that from my youth teams -- that being uncomfortable is where you're gonna grow, even though it's" -- she pauses for a moment, eyes glowing.
"It's awful at some points," she says. "But you're going to grow the most."
AS THE WORLD CUP draws nearer, the USWNT competes in a series of friendlies at home. In April, the team flies to Colorado to play Australia in Denver, not far from where Pugh grew up. Her parents arrive early with family friends, setting up a cooler and a platter of chicken tenders -- someone's dog lurks beneath the table -- in the stadium's parking lot. They wave enthusiastically when a throng of girls from their daughter's childhood club walks by.
Horace, wearing a USWNT jersey, ran track in college, but he didn't know much about soccer before his children picked up the sport; as he recounts how quickly Mal rose through the ranks of elite competition, he sounds proud and a little bewildered. I ask if he was unnerved when his daughter left UCLA and he shakes his head: "From a young age, it was always: 'I want to do this.'"
If Pugh performs well at the World Cup, scoring on the global stage, she could have a Kylian Mbappe-style moment. When I ask her parents if she's ready for the deluge of attention -- and the inevitable wunderkind talk -- they look at each other and laugh. "All of this stuff is happening around her, and she's like, 'I just want to play soccer,'" Horace says.
Karen imitates her daughter, putting her hands on her hips: "'This is what I do. It's not a big deal. I don't know why you guys are getting all excited.'"
This time last year, Pugh was on track for a meteoric rise; between January and April, she scored five international goals. Then, in May, she sprained her right knee, an injury that sidelined her until the fall. After an up-and-down winter, the USWNT competed in the SheBelieves Cup, which began Feb. 27. Because Horan was out with an injury, Pugh, who typically plays up at wing, was pushed back to midfield. It was obvious that she wasn't entirely comfortable in her new role. Instead of dashing past defenders in open space, she had to spend more time passing and defending and seemed a bit tentative. When I bring up the position change, she answers diplomatically -- "Ultimately, I feel like if you're on the field and you're playing, it doesn't really matter," she says -- but admits she's most comfortable up front.
"I was always an attacker -- I just like scoring goals," she says. A dreamy look crosses her face. "And once you can do it? You're like, 'Ooh, I shouldn't stop.' You become obsessed with it."
In Denver, Horan is back in the lineup vs. Australia, and Pugh spends the first half on the bench. About 50 minutes into the match, she starts jogging on the sideline, stopping now and then to peer at the action. Eventually, Rapinoe suffers a minor injury and walks off the field; when Pugh sprints in to replace her, the crowd erupts for the local girl. As she sprints past Alex Morgan, ponytail whipping in the wind, I'm struck by how small she looks next to her teammates; when she streaks into the box on the next possession, appearing out of nowhere like a falcon dive-bombing for prey, she's a blur on the field. Defender Emily Sonnett slips Pugh the ball through traffic, and she bangs it into the net.
From the moment she subs in, it takes her 37 seconds to score.
After the U.S.'s 5-3 victory -- and Pugh's second goal of the night, a delicate chip shot in extra time that leaves the Australian keeper gesticulating at her defenders like an exasperated parent -- Ellis fields questions about her young star. "You know, Mallory coming in -- and that right now is her role, to come in and be a difference maker -- she's fantastic," she says. "Those were world-class goals that she scored tonight."
Once Ellis is finished, Morgan, Pugh and a few other players file into a cordoned-off area near their lockers to take questions from the media. While they're chatting with reporters, we start to hear a murmur outside; the noise sounds like a wailing pack of alley cats. As Pugh leaves, I follow her out the door and spot a group of young girls standing near the team bus with their faces pressed against a chain-link fence. Most are wearing their own soccer jerseys.
"Look over here, Mal!"
Before Pugh climbs onto the bus, she obliges with a wave, and the girls explode into cheers. One of them is a little taller than the others. Her hair is braided into pigtails that remind me of Pugh's sixth-grade yearbook picture. She tells me she's 11. I ask her if she was surprised that a player so close to her own age is already making an impact, and she looks at me with mild amusement, the way a professor might regard a student who's just posed a silly question. "Mal?" she says. "I expected her to score."