Mallory Pugh is ready for NWSL -- but is the league ready for her?
Mallory Pugh reached her final "first" in an astoundingly short amount of time.
Fast enough that the question now is less about her readiness for the National Women's Soccer League than the league's readiness to benefit from a golden opportunity.
Pugh was already part of the United States under-20 national team, essentially the showcase classification in international youth soccer, when she was 15 years old. She was 17 when she entered a game against Ireland for her first cap with the U.S. senior national team. She was 18 when she started for the United States in the Olympics, her first major tournament at the senior level.
And she was 19 years old, if only by a matter of weeks, when she stepped onto the practice field Tuesday for the first time as a member of the NWSL's Washington Spirit. With youth and senior national team debuts already in her rearview mirror, and college soccer now out of the picture after only a handful of scrimmages, professional soccer was the only frontier unexplored.
No more. Her mom will remain in town through the weekend, but adulthood is here. Pugh is responsible for an array of tasks new to someone used to living at home or, for a brief time, a college dorm. Tasks not just on the soccer field but off it. There will be media commitments and sponsor appearances. There will be bills to pay and repairmen or landlords to call. There will be grocery shopping.
"I have gone grocery shopping alone before," Pugh countered this week.
All right, scratch the produce aisle frontier. But by turning pro -- something Pugh considered a year ago before ultimately electing to spend a few months at UCLA -- she chose to grow up in a hurry.
"I wanted to go to college, and I'm glad I did," Pugh said. "It was probably one of the best experiences ever. I met a lot of people, grew as a soccer player and a person. I loved UCLA. It was such a great school. Then I think I just kind of realized what I want to do and where I want to be.
"So it was kind of a thought that I had over a year, just kind of lingering around. But [the year was] also experiencing the things I needed to experience in life. And finally just coming to a conclusion."
Presented with a teenage star only beginning her ascent, the NWSL would do well to match her pace. Washington coach Jim Gabarra immediately tried to play down expectations, as he should. But with apologies to him, Pugh can be LeBron James, Maya Moore or Elena Delle Donne, to highlight another athlete new to the Washington pro scene.
She isn't Freddy Adu, to dip again into the Washington well. She is what the out-of-control hype made people think he could be.
Although often interrupted by the international schedule, the NWSL has been a stable enough home for established stars, a place for fans to see more of Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath or, current European adventures notwithstanding, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. It already gave some players the means to raise their profile en route to national team success, most notably Crystal Dunn, another current absentee, but also Lynn Williams and others. It has been a good host to international travelers, from Kim Little's extended stay to Marta's recent return stateside.
It hasn't had a Pugh. Not really. It hasn't had a player who arrived with the kind of name recognition and interest that the league still can't generate beyond the small radius of its passionate fan base but who also offered such a blank slate of promise. Fans have seen glimpses of the magic Pugh can pull off with the ball at her feet, the dance steps she shows off in traffic and the breathtaking acceleration when she's alone in space.
But only glimpses. As impressive a total as it is for a teenager, she has still played only 22 games for the United States, and her Olympic run ended before much of the mass public would have turned its attention to the sport in the medal round.
We know the name, but we have only just been introduced.
It would, for example, be difficult at this point for anything to crack Rapinoe's top 10 highlights. By the time the 2019 World Cup rolls around, Pugh's could be comprised almost entirely of NWSL moments.
This is why it was so important for the league that she remain in the United States and not follow the lead of friend and U.S. teammate Lindsey Horan, who bypassed a college scholarship to North Carolina to sign with a European giant like Olympique Lyon or Paris Saint-Germain.
To be clear, the merits of going abroad for any individual player are an entirely different debate. But this was one recruiting battle the NWSL couldn't afford to lose.
"I think for right now, just being in the U.S., being at home, off the field, is probably better for me," Pugh said. "There are competitive games every weekend. I don't think you find that anywhere else."
Asked if she would consider playing overseas during the lengthy NWSL offseason, she said she wasn't only thinking that far into the future.
Had she ended up in Portland, as seemed momentarily likely on the eve of last year's draft and still possible even after she announced this spring that she would leave UCLA, the success of this endeavor would seem more certain. Portland is always the NWSL's fool-proof plan. No franchise is more stable or better supported. The proximity of Nike's headquarters would be just one more perk after the company signed Pugh to an endorsement deal.
Pugh playing in front of 15,000 fans a game? Yes, please.
Pugh in Washington takes off the training wheels -- not hers, the league's.
Successful enough on the field, seconds away from a title just last fall before eventually losing a penalty shootout, Washington has been far less convincing off the field as proof of the league's potential. While attendance has generally run in line with many of the other non-MLS-affiliated clubs, reports of player dissatisfaction, surprising departures and the ham-handed national anthem fiasco when Rapinoe's Seattle Reign visited last season lent Washington a fly-by-night reputation.
Asked what she wanted to know before signing on, Pugh said she just wanted to hear from Gabarra about the team culture and how she would develop as a player. She said she was satisfied. What matters is she is in Washington and ready to play.
Pugh is a talent well ahead of her years. Now we wait to see if a league and a franchise are mature enough to capitalize on their good fortune.