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Rising USWNT star Mallory Pugh joins Washington Spirit, giving team and NWSL a needed jolt

Mallory Pugh is likely to make her pro debut next Saturday against FC Kansas City at Maryland SoccerPlex. (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports)

The Washington Spirit, a women’s pro soccer team in need of a jolt after a tumultuous winter and slow start this season, has acquired the U.S. national team’s rising star, 19-year-old attacker Mallory Pugh.

The 2016 Olympian, who left UCLA last month without ever appearing in a college match, chose to play in the National Women’s Soccer League instead of pursuing European opportunities.

With the top pick in the league’s distribution ranking order, the Spirit claimed Pugh on Friday. Her acquisition was formally announced by the team and league Saturday. She will join the Spirit in the coming days and likely make her pro debut next Saturday against FC Kansas City at Maryland SoccerPlex.

“Trying to promote and grow women’s soccer in the U.S. was super important to me,” she said. “I talked to my parents and my close friends, and ultimately it came down to my decision. Staying in the NWSL and playing for the Washington Spirit was just the best decision for me right now.”

Terms were not disclosed. Pugh signed a contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which pays elite players to compete with both an NWSL club and the national team. Nike announced on Saturday that it had also reached a long-term sponsorship deal with Pugh.

“This is a monumental moment for our club and the NWSL,” Spirit Coach and General Manager Jim Gabarra said. “We are extremely humbled and grateful for the opportunity to develop such a talented player. We look forward to having Mallory join the Spirit family.”

With blazing speed and refined technical skills, Pugh is widely considered the most talented young player to emerge from the prestigious U.S. women’s program in years. She scored in her senior national team debut in early 2016 while still in high school in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and, with a goal against Colombia last summer, became the youngest U.S. Olympic goal scorer in history.

This year, she has started three international matches and entered in the second half of two others. U.S. Coach Jill Ellis projects Pugh as a key figure in efforts to repeat as World Cup champions in 2019 in France and win Olympic gold a year later in Tokyo.

Pugh almost turned pro early last year, spurning an offer that would’ve brought her to the Portland Thorns, who, at the time, held the first position in the ranking order. This spring, after Pugh decided to leave UCLA, her first choice was the Thorns, the league’s best-supported organization featuring five U.S. national team players.

But Portland’s top pick had expired at the end of the 2016 season. Through a series of trades, Washington had risen to the first spot in anticipation of Pugh or another young national team prospect joining the league.

Initially, Pugh was apprehensive about committing to the NWSL because of the Spirit’s internal problems last year. Despite advancing to the championship game, several players had grown disenchanted with the organization. After the season, Washington traded its most popular player, captain Ali Krieger, and watched 2015 NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn sign with English club Chelsea, leaving the Spirit as the only NWSL team without a U.S. national team member.

Other players were dealt as well, and leading scorer Estafania Banini decided to not return.

With Pugh unsure about playing for Washington, Gabarra flew to Los Angeles about two weeks ago to address her concerns. Speculation about the Spirit trading the top pick swirled but never materialized into formal offers; barring a blockbuster offer, the team made it clear that it had no intention of surrendering the No. 1 position.

Pugh’s importance to the fifth-year league was so heightened, USSF President Sunil Gulati became involved in the negotiations — even as he was in Bahrain for FIFA meetings and championing the cause of the 2026 men’s World Cup bid for North America.

The USSF underwrites the NWSL by covering the salaries of about two-dozen U.S. national team regulars and overseeing league administration. The federation and league had suffered setbacks early this year with Dunn’s departure to a lesser league in England and superstars Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan skipping the first portion of the NWSL season by signing six-month contracts with Manchester City and Olympique Lyonnais, respectively.

With a young, new-look roster and several injury issues, the Spirit needed four matches to post its first victory, a 4-3 decision over New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC last weekend.

On Saturday, however, Megan Rapinoe scored twice in a five-minute stretch of the second half and Nahomi Kawasumi recorded four assists as the Seattle Reign routed the visiting Spirit, 6-2, before 3,007 at Memorial Stadium.

Seattle’s Christine Nairn opened the scoring in the 20th minute against her former team as the Reign (2-1-2) raced to a 2-0 halftime lead. Havana Solaun converted a penalty kick for the Spirit (1-3-1) in the 60th minute, but Seattle answered with four goals in 10 minutes. Kristie Mewis added a late goal for Washington.