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Mallory Pugh steps into pro soccer, and increased expectations, with Washington Spirit

Mallory Pugh and Coach/GM Jim Gabarra. (By Tony Quinn)

As the formal portion of Mallory Pugh’s introductory news conference ended Tuesday, Washington Spirit Coach Jim Gabarra tried tempering the massive promise that has followed the rising U.S. national team star to Maryland SoccerPlex.

Pugh is, after all, a teenager with no pro-league experience, new to a team, new to the D.C. area and unfamiliar with all of her new teammates. She missed training camp and the first five matches of the National Women’s Soccer League season. She has got to learn the system, catch up to the speed of play, forge bonds off the field and partnerships on it.

“It’s important that we not have too high expectations for Mallory,” Gabarra said. “This is a long process. It takes almost a year of games to really feel comfortable and to figure it out. It’s important that we let Mal enjoy the process and is really just free to learn and develop and not say she is coming in here to lift this team up.

“We’re welcoming the injection of energy and youth and quality she is going to bring without setting the bar way, way high. She is just like any other player.”

Except she is not. Pugh, 19, bypassed college soccer altogether. It’s rare for an American woman to leave school early; it’s almost unprecedented not to enter the NCAA circuit at all. Among the current crop of U.S. national team regulars, only midfielder Lindsay Horan took a similar route, signing with Paris Saint-Germain instead of enrolling at North Carolina.

And while Pugh is a professional rookie, she is hardly inexperienced. She has made 22 appearances for the national team since debuting early last year as a high school senior, scoring four times and starting in the Olympics.

Despite Gabarra’s effort to soften the spotlight, the glare is blinding. Pugh is a fast, exciting and unpredictable attacker who figures into Coach Jill Ellis’s national team plans in the buildup to the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics. Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais took interest in her, prompting a full-court press by officials ranging from the NWSL to the U.S. Soccer Federation to persuade her to ply her trade at home.

Last month, Pugh withdrew from UCLA, where she skipped her freshman season last fall to play in the Under-20 World Cup. Last week, the Colorado native committed to the league, which, in turn, made her available to the 10 teams through the distribution ranking order. Washington sat atop the list.

She arrived in Washington on Monday with her mother, Karen, and found a place to live. She met her teammates Tuesday morning and began practicing.

“She’ll fit right in perfectly,” captain Shelina Zadorsky said.

As for the expectations, Pugh said, “It’s just all about playing, trying to win games and trying to make an impact, and the most important thing is trying to develop.”

She will join a team that, despite advancing to the 2016 championship game, underwent radical roster change over the winter, has four players rehabbing ACL knee injuries and sports a league-worst 1-3-1 record following a 6-2 defeat at Seattle. Pugh is slated to make her debut Saturday night against visiting FC Kansas City.

Despite Pugh’s sublime skills and high profile, Gabarra said he is not building a team around her. Rather, he said, she is one piece to a complex puzzle. The Spirit will add a foreign central midfielder when the transfer window opens next month, Gabarra said, and probably fill its other international slot, as well. He declined to identify the players, but said the team has an agreement in principle with the midfielder.

Looking long term, the Spirit is hoping Crystal Dunn, a national team member who departed for English club Chelsea in the offseason, returns next summer. Washington retained her NWSL rights and Dunn, who bought a home in the area, seems as though she wants to return here. Dunn and Pugh on the flanks would mimic their roles on the national team.

Pugh’s arrival should help repair the fissure between the team and fan base, which wasn’t happy with the departure of local hero Krieger and several others after Washington came within some 30 seconds of winning the trophy last fall. Since the news of Pugh’s signing spread over the weekend, Spirit officials say they have noticed an uptick in ticket sales for Saturday’s match and expect attendance to easily eclipse the turnout at the 5,500-capacity venue for the first three home dates: 2,407, 3,154 and 3,190.

While Pugh’s punch will help bolster business, Gabarra’s focus is twofold: develop a hot prospect while winning games with her. During the season-long process, he will continue preaching patience and insisting she is one cog in the machine.

“Not only does she have the leap from college to pros, she has the leap from high school to pros,” he said. “And she has the challenge of coming into a team that has had eight weeks of training and being asked to play a certain style.

“I know she is very mature for her age. I know she’s intelligent enough to improve and be bought in. She’ll catch up really quick.”