Ac­qui­si­tion of Pugh gives Spirit much-needed lift

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

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 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 Satur­day that it had also reached a longterm 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 fifthyear 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 fiveminute 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.

JULIO CORTEZ/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mal­lory Pugh, left, con­sid­ered one of the top U.S. prospects of all time, opted to pass on col­lege soc­cer.

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