Minutes after the Washington Spirit chose Trinity Rodman with the second selection in the 2021 NWSL Draft, the comparisons began. Rodman, — like the Spirit’s 2017 signing Mallory Pugh — hadn’t played a minute of collegiate soccer and, as teenagers, leapt straight into the professional ranks. Pugh’s Spirit career lasted three seasons, and is now on her third professional team after an offseason trade to Chicago Red Stars after one 29-minute appearance with Sky Blue.
The tale of Pugh’s Spirit career is sad and filled with multiple organizational mistakes and oversights. With Rodman, the Spirit have a chance to right these wrongs.
The year prior to Pugh’s signing, the Spirit won twelve matches, drew three and only lost five — the second best record in the league. They defeated the Red Stars 2-1 in added extra time in the semifinals of the playoffs, and in the championship match went into added extra time again versus Western New York Flash, after a 2-2 scoreline from open play, the Spirit then lost 3-2 in penalties. Then, in the offseason, the Spirit lost Ali Krieger, Christine Nairn, Diana Matheson and Crystal Dunn; adding to this loss were injuries to key players Joanna Lohman and Francisca Ordega.
All of this ensured that the 2017 iteration of the Spirit would not only look markedly different, but also never stood a chance to be as competitive as they were just one year prior. This is the environment Mallory Pugh entered: one in which she was asked to be more savior than supremely talented young player allowed to grow into a face of the team. The pressure on Pugh was immense, not just from the Spirit, but media from her hometown to ESPN attempted to foretell her ascent into stardom ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
To Pugh’s credit, she hit the ground running in her first season as a pro, scoring a team-high 6 goals, but the Spirit finished bottom of the league. That season would ultimately be her best as a Spirit player. Injuries and persistent national team callups, as USSF attempted to also capitalize on the popularity of the young phenom, led to inconsistent form and playing time, leading to Pugh scoring two goals in 15 Spirit appearances in 2018, and just two in nine the following season.
Not only did Pugh not have veteran leadership and talent to lean on in rough moments, but she was having to move across the country with the weight of labels like ‘phenom,’ ‘savior,’ and the promise of being the next great USWNT star. For Rodman, though she is a supremely talented player, she is not expected to be a savior or establish herself within national team ranks. More locally, to kickstart the development of Rodman’s support system a coast away from home, the Spirit linked her with former assistant and USWNT legend Briana Scurry. Since her arrival, the World Cup Champion has been in constant contact with Rodman, providing advice, expertise, and even inviting her to dinner for a brief respite from the sudden changes to everyday life required as a now-professional footballer.
Another key difference between Rodman and Pugh is that while the veteran core of the Spirit left before Pugh arrived, the current iteration of the Spirit have a young but experienced core in Andi Sullivan and Aubrey Bledsoe, and spent the offseason adding USWNT-caliber veteran leadership via deals for Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett. Though both are defenders, both have been in professional soccer — and at its highest level, the USWNT — for a combined fifteen years of experience in club and national team soccer.
Still, the question remains: What can, and will, the Spirit expect from Rodman? That question perhaps got a little muddier prior to the first week of preseason when head coach Richie Burke revealed that forward Averie Collins tore her ACL, immediately bumping everyone up the pecking order. Burke suggested the Spirit will look to bring in a player to replace Collins.
“We’re looking for a player to add to the roster. You know, we’ve got a couple of targets in mind, we’re moving some things along in that area. We’re just finding out with the league, all of the typical bureaucratic processes to get [Averie] taken care of. Once that’s done, then we’ll move in a direction to replace or add somebody into our roster and fill that spot.”
Until that happens every non-starter currently on the roster will be fighting to fill that spot — Rodman included.
With Ashley Sanchez, now wearing the #10 shirt, in her second year as a pro after a successful and fun rookie season, the bar has been set for what to expect from a draft pick within the Spirit’s setup. O’Hara and Sonnett should only help solidify the base of defense, allowing players in front the freedom and confidence to express themselves. If Burke and the Spirit want to achieve the end goal of the three-year plan to win a Championship, they will need attackers to put the ball in the back of the net at the end of their elaborate attacking moves.
Rodman is an exciting and supremely talented player, and should have the ability to grow into the squad without being relied on in the way Pugh was. If the Spirit can help her settle into life on the opposite coast while strengthening her weaknesses and refining her game, there’s no reason she can’t play an important role this season, and become a central figure for the club in the seasons to come. If Washington learned from their mistakes with Pugh, Rodman should have a shot at developing into the player she promises to become while in a Spirit shirt.