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Mallory Pugh signs with NWSL, joins Washington Spirit

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What seemed like an improbable outcome has come true, and the Spirit have themselves a bona fide star in the making

Mallory Pugh is coming to the DMV. The USWNT attacker confirmed today that she has signed with the NWSL, and via the league’s distribution ranking order will sign with the Washington Spirit. The announcement came today, just before the broadcast of the NWSL game of the week on Lifetime, on which Pugh will appear. Per the Washington Post’s Steve Goff, Pugh could join up with the Spirit as early as this coming week ahead of Saturday’s game against FC Kansas City.

The Spirit had moved mountains in the offseason to get into this position, a spot normally reserved for the team that had finished at the bottom of the previous year’s standings. First, they traded Ali Krieger - a Virginia native and USWNT star long seen as the face of the club - to the Orlando Pride for the #2 spot in the DRO. That move by itself sparked a backlash, as trading up to acquire a high DRO spot had burned teams in the past.

The Spirit followed that up by bundling the #2 spot, center back Megan Oyster, and the 3rd and 9th overall picks from this winter’s draft and trading them all to the Boston Breakers in exchange for Kristie Mewis, Kassey Kallman, and the top spot in the DRO rankings. Mewis and Kallman have been starters whenever available, and now the Spirit look to have converted that #1 spot into a hugely important acquisition in the form of Pugh.

Pugh’s time with the USWNT has given us plenty of evidence that she’s as good a prospect as this country has ever produced. At 19, the Colorado native already has 22 caps for the senior team, and has been a legitimate competitor for playing time with world-class players like Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath, and Christen Press. Pugh’s speed catches the eye immediately, but her best traits are her vision and anticipation, which would be elite for a player with a decade of experience at the highest levels.

It remains to be seen how Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra will incorporate Pugh into his plans. The Spirit have played out of a 433, a 3412, and a 352 this season, and in each set-up Pugh would be best in a different position. The 433 would probably see Pugh playing as a wide forward, which is the kind of role she’s held in most of her USWNT caps. However, since the Spirit already have a deep set of forwards, Pugh could possibly play as a midfielder in what would be a very aggressive attacking scheme.

The 3412 would likely see Pugh playing between the midfield and forward lines as a true #10. However, that would leave Gabarra having to find a place for Mewis, who seems to have been brought in to be the Spirit’s playmaker. She could play on the left side (where she has some experience), or Gabarra could take a chance on partnering her with Tori Huster in the engine room. Both would be very attack-minded looks, and there remains the possibility that Mewis would retain her place as the #10 while Pugh plays as a withdrawn forward. That last role is where she would pretty much have to play in the 352, which would appear to be the least likely of the three formations to be used going forward at this point.

Moving past the soccer side, landing Pugh required the Spirit to take some major risks, and while they were making those trades, league-wide perception of the club was that they were making moves based on off-field concerns. There were multiple reports that Pugh preferred to play elsewhere in the NWSL, and some rather public attempts to negotiate via Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson:

Regardless of how much Gabarra’s reported visit to Pugh swayed things, or if US Soccer had to push her to sign with Washington rather than pursuing reported offers from big European clubs, or whatever other groups might have had their say (Nike, for example, could have theoretically gotten involved), the end result is a game-changer for how the Spirit are perceived off the field.