Pugh’s aus­pi­cious de­but not enough to lift Spirit

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINGTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY NICK EILERSON nick.eilerson@wash­post.com

FC KANSAS CITY 1, SPIRIT 0

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 27year-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 last­place 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 oneon-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 twohour 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.”

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