But Pugh has fallen short of soaring expectations in both U.S. and Spirit circles, and so Thursday, with an opportunity to collect a bounty of draft picks, Washington traded her to New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC for four selections, including the No. 4 overall choice.
“To get to this stage was a very, very disappointing progression for me,” Spirit Coach Richie Burke said. “I really had hopes of her taking off, and I still think Mal will take off next season. I’m not looking forward to playing against her because I know what she can do and how dangerous she can be.”
Pugh scored 10 goals in 40 Spirit matches and is a regular with the national team (62 appearances, 18 goals) but logged just 118 minutes — all in the group stage — at the World Cup in France. At times, she is electrifying, and at times, she struggles to impact the game.
Washington also features several others in the national team pool: Aubrey Bledsoe, the NWSL goalkeeper of the year; defender Sam Staab, 22; midfielder Jordan DiBiasi, 23; and forward Ashley Hatch, 24.
Last month, the Spirit signed Japanese national team forward Kumi Yokoyama.
With an expansion draft coming next winter for one or two newcomers, Burke said, the Spirit probably would have lost Pugh anyway.
“It was a case of saying, ‘Do we do some business this year and get some players we can invest in?’ ” Burke said. “It was happening sooner or later, so let’s do it now and let’s see what we get.”
After beginning the day without a pick in the first two rounds, the Spirit moved to near the top to select UCLA forward Ashley Sanchez, who, in a growing trend among elite female players, left school early. Stanford forward Sophia Smith, the No. 1 overall pick by the Portland Thorns, signed after her sophomore season.
Washington also received two second-rounders Thursday (No. 13 and 17 overall) and a first-rounder in 2021.
Sanchez, a key figure for junior national teams, recorded 23 goals and 42 assists in 69 matches over three seasons at UCLA.
“I just felt like it was best for my development,” Sanchez said of skipping her senior season. “I always aspired to leave college early and pursue my dreams, but it became real this morning.”
She said she considered playing in Europe, “but I felt this was the best fit for me.”
Joining a Washington roster with a promising youth core, Sanchez said, “I am really excited to be playing with a lot of younger players, and hopefully we can grow together.”
With its first second-round pick, the Spirit selected Natalie Jacobs, who was listed as a forward, midfielder and defender at Southern California. She did not miss any matches during her college career, which included two years at Notre Dame.
Next, the Spirit took midfielder Averie Collins, who played three seasons at Stanford before transferring to Washington State. Her father, Shane, was the Washington Redskins’ second-round pick in 1992 and played three seasons.
“We believe we have the future of the U.S. national team,” Burke said, “and we’ve just drafted a couple of players who could potentially do that, too.”
With its natural picks, the Spirit chose Kansas forward Katie McClure (17 goals) in the third round and UCLA defender Kaiya McCullough in the fourth.
“We were planning to sit on our hands for two rounds,” Burke said, “but things change and you need to be quick with your thinking.”