The day before she officially made the U.S. women’s soccer team for the Rio Olympics, Mallory Pugh grabbed Coach Jill Ellis’ attention one more time.
The 18-year-old dribbled down the left side, peeked into the box before reaching the end line then swung a cross toward the middle. The pass skipped in front of South African goalie Roxanne Barker and found a wide-open Crystal Dunn, who scored the only goal in a 1-0 U.S. win.
It wasn’t the first time Pugh made this exact play, or the second or the third. Watching from home, Real Colorado Coach Jared Spires could only laugh at what seemed like a fitting snapshot of Pugh’s whole soccer career.
He first met Pugh when she would tag along to her older sister’s club practices, and right away, he saw something special. She excelled as a 13-year-old playing with older girls, then as a high school star in Colorado. She became the leader of the U.S.’ U-20 team and consensus top recruit, once headed for UCLA but now mulling the blueprint of an already uncommon women’s soccer career.
In Rio, Pugh will be the only non-professional player on Ellis’ roster and the second-youngest woman to suit up for a U.S. Olympic soccer team.
“It feels like not long ago I was looking up to players that I’m now playing with,” Pugh said. “I still look up to them, but they’re teammates too. It’s definitely different and a little bit surreal sometimes.”
Pugh has always been trying to push the limits.
It feels like not long ago I was looking up to players that I’m now playing with. I still look up to them, but they’re teammates too.
As 12-year-olds, she and a friend would go to the garage and hook the back of their pants to the hanging bike racks and swing their bodies back and forth. One day, she fell on her wrist and sustained a misplaced bone.
“Well, you’re not going to be playing in regionals,” Pugh remembers her father, Horace, telling her.
“Yes, I am. It’s fine. Look!” she answered, and popped the bone back in place herself.
After some tears, Pugh played in the regional tournament, a puffy air cast on her broken wrist. Spires recalls her scoring nine goals that weekend.
“A lot of kids do a lot of things well that you get excited about,” Spires said. “Wow, this girl has amazing touch; this guy’s got an amazing shot. But does it actually translate to the game? And with Mal, it always translated.”
Since her debut with the U.S. U-17 team in 2013, Pugh’s future has been both promising and complicated. She committed to UCLA as a high school sophomore, reaffirmed her commitment to the Bruins in January, but now plans to play for the U-20 team instead of UCLA this fall because U.S. soccer no longer allows players to do both.
The possibility of turning pro early and living off endorsements and a salary is a new development in women’s soccer. Even the biggest names in U.S. women’s soccer history — Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd — played in college.
But now, the women’s professional landscape is shifting, with U.S. forward Lindsey Horan skipping college to play professionally in Europe in 2012. Pugh is still considering her options.
“I think being a potential face of U.S. soccer and one of the stars of today and tomorrow, she financially will be able to take care of herself,” Spires said. “So where does college fit into that?”
Pugh seized her Olympic opportunity right away, scoring on a header in her first appearance against the Republic of Ireland in a January friendly in San Diego. When the ball found the back of the net, she leaped into Christen Press’ arms, and her vibrant purple headband stood out in a mob of celebrating teammates.
Seven months later, Pugh’s assist against South Africa was her team-high seventh of qualifying play, and she scored a goal in the U.S. final tuneup against Costa Rica on Saturday. Ellis never had much of a choice but to her keep Pugh on for Rio.
“Now she’s just one of the players on the team,” Ellis said. “And players give her a hard time, but that’s a good thing because they give everyone a hard time. So they don’t treat her any differently.”
One day after the South Africa game, Pugh, if only for superstition, sat nervously on the runway in Chicago waiting for her flight to take off. She knew Ellis was contacting players with good news or bad, and she didn’t want to miss the call while in the air.
Then her phone started buzzing, and her nerves were eased. If much about Pugh’s soccer future is still to be figured out, she now knew what she would be doing in August.
“I always wanted to be that person who can inspire other people,” Pugh said. “The girls I’m playing with did that for me, and now maybe I can have younger girls look up to me.”
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this article