The team is now waiting for the top young U.S. player to make a decision about her pro future.
Mallory Pugh, an electrifying attacker from Colorado who rocketed into U.S. national team prominence last year, will soon decide whether to play in the NWSL or Europe. If the 19-year-old commits to the domestic league, the Spirit would have first dibs because, through a series of offseason trades, it sits atop the allocation list.
The situation, however, has several wrinkles.
Since Pugh left UCLA last month before playing an official game for the Bruins, speculation has swirled about her next destination: Would she bolt overseas, where women’s pro soccer is beginning to gain traction; make herself available to Washington; or agree to play in the NWSL only under the condition that she lands with a team other than the Spirit?
Washington has much to offer: 2016 runner-up status, an experienced coach, a soccer-rich region and a flawless grass stage at Maryland SoccerPlex. On a team currently without any U.S. national team players, Pugh would immediately become the face of the organization.
But the Spirit also has gained a reputation around the league for what detractors say is a bad work environment. Despite last year’s success, many players grumbled about game tactics, communication issues and ownership’s commitment. Several regulars departed, either through their own volition or the front office’s.
Pugh’s first choice is reportedly the Portland Thorns, which almost acquired her last year with the top pick in the league order before she decided to attend college. The club features five of Pugh’s U.S. teammates and, with the biggest fan support in the league and strong ownership, the Thorns are the NWSL’s standard-bearers.
Portland could trade for the first pick in the ranking order, but the sides have apparently not engaged in serious talks and no other teams have entered the mix. The presumed asking price of multiple starters might scare them off.
Jim Gabarra, the Spirit’s coach and general manager, met with Pugh last week in California, reassuring her that she would thrive with his team. No doubt, he also had to ease concerns about the state of the club after the tumultuous offseason. One source said the mood around the team has improved this year.
Gabarra has coached in all three U.S. women’s pro leagues since 2001, overseeing the development of, among others, world scoring leader Abby Wambach and current national team members Becky Sauerbrunn and Allie Long.
Pugh made her senior national team debut in 2016 at age 17, the youngest newcomer in 11 years. Last summer, Pugh started in the Olympic opener against New Zealand and, with a goal against Colombia, became the youngest U.S. scorer at the Summer Games in the program’s illustrious history.
Given her age and skill set, Pugh is projected to play a major role at the 2019 World Cup in France and 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Furthermore, her talent and marketability will probably bring endorsement deals topping $1 million.
The NWSL and U.S. Soccer Federation, which underwrites and administers the league, are in a tricky spot. Losing Pugh to a European club — Sports Illustrated reported that Paris Saint-Germain made an offer — would further tarnish a fledgling league; 2015 MVP Crystal Dunn left the Spirit to play for Chelsea and superstars Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan skipped the first part of this NWSL season to join Manchester City and Olympique Lyonnais, respectively.
The U.S. groups want Pugh in the best environment to develop and thrive, preferably in the NWSL, where her skills and marketability will help lift the league’s profile. League executive Amanda Duffy told journalist John Halloran: “The best thing for everyone is that she’s in NWSL. We’re going to do all we can to try and make that happen.”
But the league also must be wary of circumventing its guidelines or team autonomy by orchestrating a trade.
Regardless, the USSF will have a role here: National team regulars who intend to play in the NWSL sign contracts with the federation for service on both the U.S. squad and a league team. If Pugh were to sign with a European club, she would have a prorated deal with the USSF to play for the national team.
Meanwhile, after posting one goal in the first three matches, the Spirit (1-2-1) erupted for three before halftime Saturday in front of an announced 3,190 at Maryland SoccerPlex. Nigeria’s Francisca Ordega scored once in each half, added an assist and forced an own goal against Sky Blue (1-2-1).