The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 19-year-old upends the model for women’s soccer by skipping college for the pros

Legendary women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance said of female soccer players turning pro early: “The money is just not there for the typical player. Mal Pugh is not a typical player.” (Mike Stone/Getty Images)
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Under the traditional plan, one that female soccer players have followed since Mia Hamm stormed the sport some 25 years ago, Mallory Pugh would have completed her first year of college this spring and begun turning full attention to her athletic craft for the summer months.

She would’ve repeated the cycle for three additional years, alternating between the quiet world of NCAA soccer and the swelling buzz of the next World Cup.

Even if pro opportunities existed, she wouldn’t have even contemplated leaving school early.

The sport and climate have changed, however. And less than a year since graduating from high school in Colorado, Pugh has crashed convention by turning pro before ever playing a college match.

She’ll play for the Washington Spirit, likely making her National Women’s Soccer League debut Saturday night against FC Kansas City at Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County.

Pugh, 19, is not the first American woman to bypass college for the pros — Lindsey Horan passed up a North Carolina scholarship to sign with Paris Saint-Germain in 2012 — but she is the first to skip to the 10-team league in its fifth season.

And while Horan used her French experience to gain a national team foothold, Pugh is already there. She started and scored in the Olympics last summer and is slated to fill a critical role in U.S. efforts to retain the world title in 2019 in France.

“It’s a big step for Mallory to take, but it’s a step that is both groundbreaking and something we’ll see more of in the future,” said Jim Gabarra, the Spirit’s head coach and general manager.

The United States has been the trailblazer in women’s soccer since the 1980s, winning three World Cup trophies and four Olympic gold medals while developing some of the sport’s greatest players. All rose through the college ranks, and while NCAA soccer is the right place for almost every player, many involved in U.S. soccer believe elite prospects such as Pugh are better off in full-time, pro environments.

For men, alternative opportunities have existed for years, in MLS or abroad. Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic, among many others, never played in college.

Until now, though, such viable options did not exist for women, either here or abroad.

The NWSL has outlived two predecessors, the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11). And while attendance in most markets is small — the Portland Thorns’ average of 15,500 is an exception — the NWSL is on stable ground, thanks to the U.S. and Canadian soccer federations, which underwrite salaries for their respective national team players competing in the league.

The two-dozen players under contract with the U.S. federation will earn about $200,000 annually to compete for both the national team and an NWSL team. Several also have endorsement deals; Pugh last week signed with Nike.

She could’ve turned pro last year but wanted to attend college, at least for a short time. A UCLA recruit, she skipped last fall’s season to play in the Under-20 World Cup, then enrolled over the winter.

“In life, you need to experience certain things,” she said. “Last year, I was 18. I was graduating from high school. The Olympics were approaching. It was really crazy. Going to UCLA was 100 percent the right move.

“Over the past year, I did have a constant thought in my mind: ‘What if I had gone pro?’ I’m glad I went to college because I grew as a person and realized I need to try something different.”

By April, she had withdrawn from UCLA. As she contemplated leaving school, Pugh had consulted with Horan, her U.S. teammate. She also spoke regularly with her parents.

“I’m really excited for her because it’s a really good point in her life,” Karen Pugh said. “I would rather have her do it now than later. She need to take advantage of it.”

The early pro route is not for everyone — or realistically available to everyone.

“It will be as frequent as the emergence of Mallory Pugh, which is to say, infrequent,” said Anson Dorrance, who has won 21 NCAA women’s titles at North Carolina since 1979 and guided the first U.S. World Cup team in 1991.

“There has to be a monetary incentive, and the money is just not there for the typical player. Mal Pugh is not a typical player. For her, it makes sense. She’s going to sparkle.”

For non-national team players, NWSL contracts for the seven-month season range from $15,000 to $41,700.

As salaries grow, however, the pro setting will, in theory, become more attractive.

“There comes a point where there’s an elite 1 to 5 percent of players that need to be, at Mallory’s age and younger, competing with pros and women,” Gabarra said. “I think you are going to start to see more of it, and it’s not something that’s going to be forced. It’s a natural process.”

Pugh’s first NWSL choice was Portland, which features five U.S. national teamers. Washington, though, had first crack at her through the league’s distribution process.

The Spirit’s offseason roster upheaval had raised concerns in Pugh’s camp. Some of Pugh’s U.S. teammates grumbled about the Washington organization, either through firsthand experience or their observations.

Gabarra flew to Los Angeles about three weeks ago to meet with Pugh and agent Richard Motzkin.

“I was really proud that I got a 19-year-old not to look at her phone for an hour and a half,” Gabarra joked.

He added: “She was very engaged. She asked questions. I asked questions. I told her we had the right resources and that this is the proper fit for her and her development.”

Europe’s recent embrace of women’s soccer has raised the competition for talent. Pugh turned down opportunities from Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais.

Crystal Dunn, the NWSL MVP in 2015 while with Washington, signed with English club Chelsea this winter. U.S. superstars Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan skipped the first part of this NWSL season to play in England and France, respectively.

While she considered the French overtures, she ultimately decided to stay home and help build the fledgling domestic league — and to do so without playing in college first.

“You don’t see it a lot in the U.S., but overseas you see it all the time,” Pugh said of young women turning pro.

At the U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea in November, she encountered players for runner-up France who were already in pro settings.

“It opened up my eyes to see the level and the difference,” she said. “The college game is great for soccer, but going outside the box is important, too.”