“Go at her! Go at her!” Rapinoe shouted from outside the field of play, where the reserves were warming up.
“I was like, ‘You’re right,’ ” Pugh recalled Sunday. “That gave me the extra bit of boost that I needed. So credit to Pinoe, too.”
Pugh charged at Payne, infiltrated the box, then cut left, drawing upper-body contact and a penalty kick, which Alex Morgan converted to cap a 4-0 victory.
Last year and maybe the year before, Pugh might not have had the confidence and technical polish to create the opportunity. Once a can’t-miss talent who bypassed NCAA soccer to turn pro and join the Washington Spirit in 2017, she admits to losing her way, culminating with her omission from the 2020-21 Olympic squad.
This year, still just 24, Pugh has experienced a rebirth of sorts with the world’s top-ranked program. Heading into Tuesday’s rematch with Nigeria at Audi Field, she is second on the squad in goals with six and leads in assists with seven.
If she scores again before April 29, she’ll become the sixth player in U.S. women’s history with 25 goals and 25 assists before age 25. The others are in the National Hall of Fame (Mia Hamm, Cindy Parlow Cone, Kristine Lilly and Tiffany Milbrett) or destined for it (Morgan).
Combined with her production for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League, the left-sided attacker has posted 18 goals and 12 assists in 28 appearances this year.
“She is now what a lot of people expected her to be when she was 16 and 17 and 18,” U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said.
Pugh is Andonovski’s top choice at left wing, ahead of Rapinoe, who, at 37, remains influential but in smaller bites.
More than half the U.S. squad in Washington is between ages 22 and 26. From that group, only Pugh has gone to a World Cup (2019) or an Olympics (2016). Her 79 international matches are tied for sixth on the current roster; her 24 goals are behind only Morgan, Rapinoe and Lindsey Horan.
There was a considerable pause in Pugh’s career, though. After becoming the youngest U.S. Olympic scorer and bursting onto the pro scene, she struggled.
“I feel like I was just a little lost,” she said. “It’s been an evolution finding my game. I feel like early on, you’d see little glimpses of it. But now I feel like it’s the confidence, the clarity that has come together to find who I am on the field.”
Injuries played a big part in Pugh’s stunted development. Every time she tried to raise her level, a hamstring or hip ailment, among other things, would set her back. Unable to perform at a high level, and falling short of elevated expectations since her teenage breakthrough, she was traded twice in the NWSL and fell on the national team depth chart.
“Mal went through some tough times in her career and, as tough as it looks now, looking back, it was actually a good time for her — a good moment for her to regroup, to reset and to grow as a player and as an individual,” Andonovski said. “When she came back, she’s mentally stronger and she has evolved.”
Expectations weighed on Pugh as well.
“I don’t know if at the time I felt it, but now moving on, there are little things that did affect me,” she said of her early jump to the NWSL and national team. “It would affect anyone at that age. You have all these eyes on you. I started well but then expectations are so high all the time.”
The low point was when Andonovski told her she wouldn’t be on the Olympic squad in Tokyo.
“It was completely fair,” Pugh said. “That’s the [high] standard of this team. But they never gave up on me, either. There was regular communication, which gave me a little bit of confidence because it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m completely done with the national team.’ Everyone just realized I wasn’t performing well. I could earn another chance.”
The chance came after a strong finish to the 2021 NWSL season, in which Pugh finished second in MVP voting to OL Reign’s Jess Fishlock and helped the Red Stars to the championship game. This year, Pugh is tied for fourth in the league in goals (eight) and tied for first in assists (five).
“Playing with her is probably what I prefer versus playing against her,” said Fox, from Ashburn, who plays left back for the U.S. team and NWSL’s Racing Louisville. “I mean, she’s been killing it.”
Pugh attributes her turnaround in part to her mental coach, Armando Gonzalez, who came recommended by her fiance, Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. For the past two years, she has engaged in regular sessions with Gonzalez, usually via video call.
“I felt my whole identity was wrapped up in soccer,” she said. “Working with [Gonzalez], it allowed me to take a deep breath and find my way instead of being so hard on myself.”
Pugh says her life is more well-rounded now. With a wide array of athletes among the some 260 invited guests, she and Swanson will get married in Georgia in December, the offseason for both.
In-season, with their sports overlapping, they find small gaps in the schedule to see one another. This weekend, their travel calendars align in Seattle.
Next summer, barring injury or a drop in Pugh’s performance, the couple will be far apart for several weeks when the World Cup takes place in Australia and New Zealand.
“I haven’t even looked that far ahead,” she said. “Bit by bit helps me because I’ve learned looking too far in the future stresses me out a little. When I am focused on what’s right in front of me, it’s a different sense of confidence. Now I understand that I fully get what I do and how I am special on the field.”