Mallory Pugh tells ASN: Rio "Means the World to Me"
July 15, 2016
CONSISTENCY HAS ALWAYS BEEN a hallmark of the United States women’s national team. And in the process of winning four Olympic gold medals and three World Cup titles over the past 25 years, change to the squad has always come slowly.
Even in outside official competitions, the team rarely loses and the player pool rarely changes. So when head coach Jill Ellis’ first roster of 2016 included a 17-year-old named Mallory Pugh, many fans and pundits viewed the announcement with a combination of shock and skepticism.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take Ellis or Pugh very long to silence the doubters. The coach immediately began playing the young phenom and Pugh delivered the goods.
Now, seven months later, the winger is about to head to Brazil with 17 other Americans to represent the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The team will play one final warm-up against Costa Rica next Friday in Kansas City (9pm ET, ESPN), then it’s off to South America.
Speaking to American Soccer Now, Pugh recalled the moment last Sunday when Ellis told her she had made the Olympic team.
“We had our game in Chicago [on Saturday], and it was on the plane coming back from Chicago with my family because we stayed an extra day,” said Pugh. “We were on the runway when she called me, so obviously I kind of had to keep it down, but I wanted to run up and down the aisle because I was so excited.
“When I first heard, I was kind of just in shock. Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to Rio.”
Since that first call-up in January, Pugh has played in 13 of the U.S.’ 14 matches—the lone exception coming due to illness. She has also started nine of the team’s last 11 games and racked up two goals (the first in her debut) and seven assists in 2016.
While Pugh admits getting used to so many new faces and adjusting to the increased speed of play at the senior level challenged her at first, she explained the veterans helped the transition.
“Everyone was welcoming, really nice, and awesome,” observed Pugh. “Some of the veterans, like Alex [Morgan], Carli [Lloyd], and Hope [Solo], they still held a very high expectation for me. Having that, and having a good balance with being friends with them and also with competing with them, helped me in that environment and getting used to it.”
The youngster also faced an unusual hurdle while playing for the U.S. this past spring. In addition to participating in four national team camps, she had to complete her senior year of high school.
Pugh acknowledged the experience was difficult, but the Colorado native said her years of playing with the youth national teams gave her plenty of practice in dealing with the dual responsibilities of school and soccer. She also noted many people helped her along the way.
“My school was really helpful with it all because they knew what was going on. All my teachers were on my side and supporting me and were helpful in my school[work], so I could really focus on the soccer part when I needed to,” explained Pugh.
“My teachers, Douglas County school district, my principal—they were just super helpful. They showed that they cared and that was really, really cool.”
Pugh turned 18 in April, but plays and carries herself in a way that belies her age. Twice in the last week Ellis has said Pugh has “ice in her veins” and remarked that the midfielder displays a rare combination of talent and maturity.
Pugh credited her years with the youth national teams for developing the mental side of her game.
“Being in with the youth programs, looking up to all the girls on this [senior] team and past teams and their mental toughness, has really helped me work on mine too,” said Pugh. “In the youth teams, we talk about the ‘USA mentality’ and what it means to have that USA mentality.”
Pugh committed to play collegiately at UCLA after getting “that special feeling” while visiting Westwood. However, she is delaying enrollment until January in order to give her time to compete in both the Olympic Games and the U-20 World Cup this November.
“I chose to go in January because of the next few months,” noted Pugh. “I’m going to be with the national team in Rio and focusing on that, and then be with the U-20 World Cup team because we have our World Cup in November.”
At this January’s NWSL draft, reports surfaced that Pugh would be skipping college and going straight to the pro ranks. But Pugh said going pro straight out of high school ultimately wasn’t the right choice for her.
“I definitely thought about it. I was considering it,” she admitted. “I think I just really wanted to go to school.”
For now, Pugh will head to Brazil to represent the Red, White and Blue—an experience she is certainly looking forward to.
“It means the world to me. I dreamed of this forever. Ever since I was a little girl.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.