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Mallory Pugh looking at 2021 as a fresh start

Despite setbacks, this season might be one to remember for the Red Stars forward — a well-traveled pro at just 22.

Mal Pugh
Mallory Pugh #2 of the U.S. woman’s national soccer team dribbles the ball during the second half against the Costa Rica women’s national soccer team at TIAA Bank Field on November 10,2019 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Forward Mallory Pugh landed with the Red Stars, her third team in three years, in a Christmas Eve trade.

At 22, she has had to face challenges more on-trend with a player at the end of her career than the beginning: trades, nagging injuries and outsider expectations that have hung over her the last year and a half.

Pugh tries to pay it no mind. She knows she plays her best soccer when her mind is free from the pressure.

“The motto I’ve embraced in the last year with trades and everything is that none of us really know what’s going to happen,” she said. “The best way to handle that is to adjust.”

Pugh has understood how to operate outside of her comfort zone since she first started playing at age 4 — always playing up and forcing herself to adjust to challenges. Her desire to pursue the road less traveled is what motivated her to forgo her NCAA eligibility in 2017, leaving UCLA to turn pro before her freshman season, and it’s still motivating her now.

She has made 63 appearances with the U.S. Women’s National Team and has 18 goals, 17 assists and a World Cup title — credentials that explain why she has been regarded as the future of women’s soccer.

But in the last year, that praise has given way to steadily growing pressure. After notching a goal and an assist through three games during the 2019 World Cup championship run, Pugh was noticeably left off coach Vlatko Andonovski’s 2020 Olympic qualifying roster last January.

The USWNT’s depth at forward was an easy explanation for that. But then Pugh’s 2020 season with Sky Blue FC of the National Women’s Soccer League was marked by injuries that sidelined her for all but one game in the Fall Series. Questions about her future began creeping to the forefront.

This year, she’s embracing a new opportunity with the same old mindset: Adjust and advance. Still, three teams in three years is a lot, especially for a player who could have entered the NWSL in this year’s draft class if she’d stayed at UCLA.

“The other day, I stopped and thought, ‘This is my fifth professional season,’ which is crazy to think about,” Pugh said. “When these little setbacks happen, it’s important that I do remind myself that I’m very young and there’s still a lot of soccer to be played.”

Andonovski has been clear that assumptions about his 18-player roster are just that. He plans to have the Olympic roster finalized by the middle of June and has said players such as Pugh and Red Stars teammate Casey Krueger are still in the mix despite not being invited to camp ahead of April friendlies against Sweden and France.

Red Stars coach Rory Dames voiced ahead of the preseason that his team needs players to solidify their run at an NWSL title. Pugh, who was one of those players, reinjured her hamstring in preseason training after first hurting it in camp with the USWNT in January.

Will she be ready for the NWSL’s Challenge Cup tournament? Pugh said she’s day-to-day but doesn’t believe she’ll be ready to go for the opener on April 9.

When she is back at 100%, she’ll join a versatile attack with Kealia Watt, Rachel Hill and a slew of young forwards who will be able to work out of multiple formations and score in many ways.

“I’m excited because there are so many options that we have as a team,” Pugh said. “That’s just dangerous.”