HOUSTON -- Just for a moment, as a pop song blared over the public address system at BBVA Compass Stadium in the minutes before an Olympic qualifier between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago, Mallory Pugh looked like any teenager moved to dance along to familiar notes. The moment passed as quickly as it arrived. Pugh's leg movements weren't dance steps but part of the warm-up routine she and the rest of the U.S. women's national team do.
This wasn't pleasure, just business. Even for someone not yet five Olympics old.
We now know that the United States will have the opportunity to warm up for Olympic matches this summer in Brazil, should labor issues at home and health issues in that country be resolved to the satisfaction of the players. And there might be a teenager in their midst when they do.
With the 17-year-old Pugh in the starting lineup for only the second time, the United States beat Trinidad and Tobago 5-0 in a semifinal Friday. The result earns the Americans a spot opposite Canada in Sunday's final in Houston, but more important, it books them passage alongside their northern neighbor to the Olympics. The two semifinal winners are the only CONCACAF teams that qualify.
"We finally qualified," Alex Morgan said. "We don't have to talk about qualifying anymore."
On a night when the U.S. could afford some wastefulness, there was some. Yet that was still a better development than too few chances, better than getting bogged down sooner. By the end, Morgan had her third career hat trick and sole possession of eighth place on the team's all-time scoring list, all while still only 26 years old. Carli Lloyd had the goal that is now as much a regular part of the proceedings as the national anthems, her 23rd goal in the past 18 matches.
But what this game was about was clear as soon as the lineup came out with Pugh's name on it. To be blunt, qualifying is largely a formality for the U.S. women. With the exception of the opponents it plays Sunday, CONCACAF can still only delay its best team, not test the United States.
What Pugh's name symbolically made clear was that this wasn't about beating Trinidad and Tobago. This continues to be about winning tournaments in the future.
As it turned out, Pugh provided the assist on the goal that qualified the U.S. for Brazil, although not without some help from Tobin Heath. Moving toward the end line on the left side of the field in the 12th minute, Pugh cut a pass back through the 18-yard box. It looked as if she had overplayed her hand, Morgan and Lloyd both ahead of the ball by that time, but Heath latched onto the ball near the top of box and drove home the first goal.
Pugh's night, before she came off with half an hour to play, was in some ways a microcosm of the team's night. There are some chances she might want back, shots that went just wide and passes that didn't quite find their mark, but there were chances. Lots and lots of chances.
"She didn't show her nerves probably because she has other players around her who are younger, who have been successful, like Lindsey Horan and players she knows well," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "I think she just feels at home on the field with all the players and the mix of different ages."
It worth pointing out just how unusual Pugh's place in the team was at this particular stage of a tournament. Look back through recent history of games with Olympic or World Cup qualification and a pattern develops, starting lineups with one or two, maybe even a few, players around 23 or 24 years old but no younger. Morgan was only 21 when she scored the only goal in the first leg of a World Cup playoff against Italy, a couple of other players in the past decade were 22 years old. And that's about it. Friday, by contrast, the 21-year-old Horan was a wizened old starter in comparison to Pugh.
Injury took away Megan Rapinoe, who if healthy presumably would have been in the spot Pugh occupied. Pregnancy removed Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez from the equation. Retirement claimed Lauren Holiday, Abby Wambach and others. Some of the youth and reshuffling taking shape was forced on Ellis. But the coach also chose to leave Whitney Engen and Heather O'Reilly off the qualifying roster. She chose to start Horan in a new position.
She chose to take a high schooler in Pugh. Not just take her but play her. Not just play her but start her. And not just start her but do so when a loss, as improbable as it might have been given the opponent, would have been catastrophic.
"I felt like she was ready for the environment," Ellis said this week of making the present Pugh's moment. "We have players retiring and obviously with Pinoe's injury, [we are] just looking for different types of creative attacking players. So bringing her in to January just made sense. I talked to her about it actually a while ago that that was the intent, after her [Under-20 World Cup] qualifying to bring her in and then just give her a fair assessment. I think we did that.
"She's really comfortable. Not in a lackadaisical way but she's smooth on the ball, doesn't get rattled, competes. We've said before, it doesn't matter about age; it's just can you thrive in this environment? She's done very well."
To her dismay, or at least boredom, Solo had less to do on the evening than even the ball girls. But while not pressed into action, she did have one of the best vantage points to watch what unfolded as the United States, with Pugh and Horan in the middle of it, eventually picked apart its opponent with precision rather than the blunt instrument of superior athleticism.
"I think it says a lot about this team, but even beyond that, I think it says a lot about the game here in America," Solo said. "I've been on this team for a long time, and I've seen a lot of different styles of play -- we've played a lot of different styles. But we are finally playing an incredible possession style of soccer, and it's beautiful."
Will it be beautiful against Canada on Sunday, instead of against a team on this night cobbled together at the last minute that had pride but little preparation? Will it be beautiful in the Olympics against a Germany or the host? That's the point of playing Pugh now (as it would be had ascending talent Crystal Dunn started in what has become her normal place).
One of the lines Ellis repeats over and over is that she told her team that what was good enough to win the World Cup won't be good enough to win the Olympics a year later. History backs her up. No team has won the Olympics the year after winning the World Cup.
"We did a remarkable thing at the time," Ellis said of the World Cup win. "But it's more alluding to the fact that every team is now going to look at our team and say, 'How do we stop that?'
"So it's more about saying what do we need to improve and grow upon so that teams can't stop where we're at. ... Certainly our speed of play can be faster; I thought tonight it was very good. Just how we want to play ... valuing the ball -- not to say we didn't, but again, it's making sure we're doing every possible thing to develop our game."
Perhaps we should leave the final word to Pugh, albeit with the caveat that she is still 17 years old and more comfortable picking out runs and passes than facing down a horde of strangers barking questions at her.
"I think it's a really cool and awesome opportunity," Pugh said of starting a game with such high stakes. "Not everyone gets it, and I think just making the most of it when it comes is really cool."
Awesome and cool, indeed.