After leading FC Kansas City to a 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit on Saturday night in Montgomery County, standout forward Sydney Leroux approached the clamoring fans lined against the fence and smiled.
Perhaps Leroux was simply expressing satisfaction with the road victory. Or maybe the 27-year-old Olympic gold medalist realized most of those fans weren’t waiting for her.
Even after the Spirit’s somewhat dispiriting performance, men and women young and old waited eagerly for a moment or two with Mallory Pugh, the teenage sensation expected to help lift the Spirit out of its current last-place funk.
“I hope it’s not too much pressure for a 19-year-old,” said Jenn Scott, one of three ringleaders of the boisterous Spirit Squadron cheering section waiting to bestow one of its dark-blue T-shirts to Pugh after the game.
Coaches and teammates have been playing down those expectations since Pugh’s introductory news conference Tuesday. Attention poured in from around the country when Pugh opted to leave UCLA and pursue her professional career. The decision made her the first woman to bypass college soccer and jump straight into the National Women’s Soccer League.
Pugh came off the bench in the 54th minute Saturday, replacing forward Arielle Ship and taking her spot on the left wing. It was the same position from which Pugh made a name for herself last year, when she became a regular starter for the U.S. national team and became the youngest player in women’s national team history to score an Olympic goal at the Rio 2016 Games.
“That’s where she’s most comfortable and where she best fits our style of play and our system,” Spirit Coach and General Manager Jim Gabarra said. “There’s things that she needs to get used to out there, but being a little more isolated and being a little more wide and getting into one-on-one situations, I think it did a lot for her confidence.”
Pugh was an attacking threat from the moment she trotted onto the pitch. The NWSL’s youngest player used her speed and creativity to run at defenders and set up teammates in dangerous areas, twice setting up forward Francisca Ordega with promising opportunities that were ultimately thwarted by Kansas City’s stingy defense.
“There’s always room for improvement,” said Pugh, who has racked up 22 caps and four goals for the national team. “This game was really to get the nerves and jitters out.”
Saturday’s defeat marked the third home loss in four matches for the Spirit (1-4-1), a team still dealing with injuries in addition to its new-look roster. Even with Pugh’s arrival, attendance only reached 3,714, a shade below last season’s average.
Still, Pugh’s debut had a tangible effect on the atmosphere at Maryland SoccerPlex. Jordan Schaetzly, a 13-year-old from the Eastern Shore, made the two-hour drive to Boyds with her mother after her 4 p.m. travel soccer game outside Harrisburg, Pa. Jordan recalled stubbing her toe when she found out Pugh signed with the Spirit.
“I was like jumping up and down in my room,” said Jordan, who sported a “Pugh (you) are my idol” sign. “Kind of kicked my bed by accident.”
Kaitlyn Stambaugh and Alyssa Denney made the two-hour drive down Route 15 from York, Pa., with their parents. The Pennsylvania Soccer Academy teammates expressed similar enthusiasm when they saw a rumor about Pugh’s potential move last week on Instagram.
“We were screaming back and forth while we were texting.”
Pugh, for her part, could relate to all that. It was only a few years ago, after all, that she was their age.
“It’s super special, just all the support,” Pugh said. “I was one of those little girls screaming names before, so I think it’s just really cool.”