Mallory Pugh, 21, likely will serve as a spark off the bench for the U.S. in France. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Mallory Pugh remains sheepish around attention. Spending the past three years carrying the mantle as American soccer’s “next big thing” hasn’t done much to build up her ego. Asked about handling that burden, she can only laugh.

“I don’t know,” Pugh said, adding, “You’re going to hear me say that a lot.”

Pugh was 17 when she made her national team debut in January 2016, six months after the U.S. lifted the World Cup trophy in Vancouver. By the time the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro rolled around that August, the Colorado-born winger had established herself as a regular for the world’s top-ranked team.

Although the U.S. crashed out in the quarterfinals, Pugh lived up to her rising star billing, scoring in a draw with Colombia to become the youngest U.S. player ever with a goal at the Olympics.

After that meteoric rise, Pugh fell into a waiting game before her next shot on the global stage. That’s the cyclical nature of women’s soccer — the World Cup and Olympics come in quick succession, followed by three years of exhibitions and low-stakes tournaments.

At long last, Pugh is set to make her World Cup debut when the U.S. opens its title defense against Thailand on Tuesday in Reims, France. As a 21-year-old with 53 caps and 16 goals under her belt, she’s now a veteran of sorts, even if she’d quibble with that characterization.

“Yeah, I’ve been on the team for a few years now, I have this many caps,” she said. “But I also feel like there’s so much more ahead.”

Fleet-footed and brazen on the ball, Pugh swiftly earned a reputation with the U.S. for her ability to run at defenders, create scoring opportunities and bury chances of her own. Since leaving UCLA in 2017 to turn pro before playing a single NCAA game, the 5-foot-4 attacker has further developed her physicality and soccer IQ with regular minutes for the Washington Spirit.

“Tactically, I have a better soccer brain,” Pugh said. “I can read the game better, but I think the part I don’t want to lose, that I want to keep evolving, is just going out and playing and not thinking too much. I know when I’m doing that, that’s when I’m going to be at my best.”

Washington midfielder Andi Sullivan, who also has played with Pugh on the U.S. team, added: “Everyone sees that she’s graceful, but I don’t think that people see her toughness. That’s not something she gets admired for, because she is scoring or sending in great crosses and having these cheeky touches. But she is pretty durable and strong and can hold off people really well.”

Although Pugh is widely acknowledged as one of the sport’s top young talents, she is poised to primarily serve as a spark off the bench in France. Such is life on a loaded U.S. squad, with world-class playmakers Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe entrenched as the starters out wide.

Pugh has embraced that responsibility, recording three goals and an assist over five appearances as a substitute for the U.S. this year.

“That, right now, is her role — to come in and be a difference-maker,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “We’ve got a lot of strengths in our attacking group, but Mal is a really special player.”

For a person who worries about saying “I don’t know” too much, Pugh is plenty decisive about the significance of stepping on the World Cup field in any role.

“You wanted that as a little girl growing up,” Pugh said. “To have that happen would be like, ‘Wow, you actually did it’ — but also a sense of, ‘All right, let’s go.’ ”