Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith: 'Bonafide superstars' and the future of USWNT

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Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith: 'Bonafide superstars' and the future of USWNT
Read Time:13 Minute, 21 Second

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

In June, Vlatko Andonovski revealed the future of the U.S. women’s national team.

“I don’t think it will be surprising if I say that it will be extremely difficult for a player to come in and take their starting spots,” Andonovski said during a roster reveal ahead of the CONCACAF W Championship tournament — which doubled as qualifying for both the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as well as the 2024 Paris Olympics. 

The USWNT coach was singling out two young forwards, 24-year-old Mallory Pugh and 22-year-old Sophia Smith.

“Those are two players that will enjoy a lot of minutes on the field,” he added.

To those who follow the sport, Pugh and Smith aren’t new — their respective careers have been rising meteorically, often intertwining. They’ve known each other since childhood in the Denver area, were declared prodigies early on, played for the same club and same coach at Real Colorado, and both left college early to pursue professional soccer.

Pugh earned her first senior national team cap and turned pro at 17, started at the 2016 Olympics when she was 18, and had played in her first World Cup by 21. She now has 80 caps, 24 goals and 27 assists for the national team, joking that it feels like she’s already had a long career. 

“My experience is like a veteran,” she says, “but I’m young.”

Smith, who turned pro at 19 after winning a national championship her sophomore year at Stanford, made history as the first teenager drafted into the National Women’s Soccer League when she was taken No. 1 overall by the Portland Thorns. If not for a broken leg during her freshman year in 2018 — a defender made a reckless slide tackle from behind — she might have been considered for the 2019 World Cup roster, too. Smith made her USWNT debut in 2020, has 25 caps, and currently leads the team with 10 goals this calendar year (though she has scored 11 total for the USWNT).

As veteran leaders like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe get older and contemplate retirement, the USWNT needs the next generation of budding stars to be primed for the global spotlight. The next World Cup is only nine months away. 

To those on the team, the answer is simple. 

“I mean,” Rapinoe says, thinking of Smith and Pugh, “these are bad bitches.”

*** *** ***

Smith hates being taken out of a game — it doesn’t matter if the score is 1-0 or 20-0. Lorne Donaldson, who coached both players at Real Colorado where he’s now the club president and director of coaching, remembers one time Smith scored seven goals in the first half of a U18 tournament game. They had a match the next day, so he took her out at halftime to rest and give minutes to other players.

“It took me the entire halftime to convince her that I wasn’t going to play her,” says Donaldson, who is also the Jamaican women’s national team coach. “I said, ‘I don’t want to embarrass the other team.’ She looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘Well then why are they playing? That’s not my problem. I’m here to play.’ She sat there and moaned the entire second half. 

“Now every time I see her she reminds me of that story and asks why I pulled her out of the game. She still doesn’t understand why.”

It makes sense when one understands Smith’s on-field persona. Her mom describes her as sweet and kind off the field, but on it, she’s a face-up attacker who takes defenders one-on-one and likes getting in behind the back line of the defense. Donaldson chooses the word “ruthless” to best describe her. She has a killer instinct to score goals — lots of them. 

“I’m a creative and fun player and I like to put on a show sometimes,” Smith says. 

She also wants to be the best player in the world. And her parents believe she can be. Not because they are being supportive, but because every time Smith has ever decided to do anything, she’s made it happen.

Take, for example, the time when a 5-year-old Smith played for a three-on-three travel team. She declared in the car on the way to a game that she was going to score 10 goals. She went out and scored 10 goals.

When Smith decided she would go to Stanford, her mother, Mollie, was fully on board but realistically didn’t know how her daughter would pull it off. She already missed about 60 days of school a year because of different national team camps. She’d need to be super organized, communicate with teachers, get her work turned in early, and so forth.

“In my head I was thinking, that’s gonna be a lot of pressure,” Mollie says. “But she said ‘I’m gonna do it,’ and she did.”

Smith is intrinsically motivated and believed in herself at a young age. As a kid, she was “crazy strong and was always running and jumping on everything,” Mollie says. She went to a gymnastics class when she was 2 and hung from the rings longer than any of the coaches had seen from a kid her age. When she was a little older, Smith liked to come down the steep staircase in her house, stop on the sixth or seventh stair, and if someone was walking by, call out their name and jump toward the person at the bottom.

“Luckily,” Mollie says, “we always caught her.”

Smith was organized, too. She lined up her toys and made her bed. She idolized her older sisters Savannah and Gabrielle and enjoyed competing with them, anything from putting a puzzle together to racing in the backyard. They all played sports, but Smith, who likes to wear her hair in a bubble braid on game days, describes the three of them as “girly girls.” They preferred watching princess movies and “Hannah Montana” to “Harry Potter.” 

Smith didn’t get serious about soccer until the ninth grade. That’s when she dropped all other sports and honed her focus. Her career became a family commitment. Their hometown of Windsor, Colorado, is an hour-and-a-half drive from Denver so to play for the best club, Real Colorado, Smith needed her parents’ help getting to and from practices.

Mollie quit a job she had for 20 years and got a different one that allowed her to get off work at 2 p.m., pick up her daughter from school early and drive to practice four days a week. Mollie stayed at the two-hour practice and either walked nearby trails with friends or read a book in the car before sitting in traffic on the way home. Smith would take a quick nap in the car, pull her laptop out, do homework (she had all AP classes), then get dressed for practice. Afterward, she finished homework in the car, ate dinner that they packed, got home, took a shower, went to bed, then got up the next day and started over. 

“When we first decided to do this, I was like, if she ever complains about this drive, that’s it,” says Mollie, noting that they did this for four years. “She never once complained, thanked me every day, thanked her dad every day. She’s extremely humble and so appreciative.”

Plus, Mollie adds, “I wouldn’t have traded it for anything because looking back at the time I got to spend with her is irreplaceable. The conversations we had in the car, the time we spent together, it was a blessing in disguise.”

*** *** ***

Pugh always had a ball at her feet. Her mother Karen half-jokes now that the walls in their home are still banged up because of her constant dribbling. She followed her sister to practices and games — she was the little kid who tagged along and developed her passion and skill for the game that way. 

A 7-year-old Pugh used to sit on the bench at her older sister Bri’s soccer games. She’d hang there quietly, never making a peep, studying every move, every trick and every play the older girls made. 

“She absorbed it all like a sponge,” Karen says. “She hung around her older sister and her teammates, and they’d play in the backyard and just pummel the balls at her, and she’d keep going.”

Pugh developed into an electric dribbler and fearless attacker who runs straight through defenders like they’re not even there. Now 5-foot-4, she has always been small, but her skill level and technical ability was such that at a young age, she sometimes played with the boys’ club team. When she was 12, Pugh played up two age groups with the U14 team at a Nike tournament where she was the best player and caught the attention of then-USWNT coach Jill Ellis.

From then on, she gained more attention from U.S. Soccer and the media. Before the 2019 World Cup, Pugh’s big debut, she was labeled as the next big thing and the USWNT’s wunderkind. Expectations were high. She played in the first three games and scored one goal, helping the USA win its second consecutive World Cup.

Mal Pugh scores the United States’ 11th goal vs. Thailand

Pugh tied the Women’s World Cup record as the United States poured it on vs. Thailand in their 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup opener.

But after that, everything kind of took a turn. Pugh endured a slew of injuries, including tweaking her hamstring twice. Not being 100% healthy led to inconsistencies in performance, and she didn’t make the roster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I had never experienced adversity in my career, so I was kind of wondering when it was going to hit,” Pugh says. “I’m glad that it did, honestly. A lot of good came out of it.”

But before the good, Pugh was down. It took awhile for her to snap out of it.

“You look at everybody’s career and they’re completely different,” she says. “One thing I’ve learned is that adversity, you need it. It helps grow your character as a player.”

Pugh used the time to reset and reassess. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, she trained, took care of her body and got healthy at her own pace without the pressure of having to run the infamous USWNT beep test, a fitness test the players have done for years and love to hate. She did a lot of self-reflection and saw a sports psychologist. She leaned on her family, her teammates, and her fiancé, Atlanta Braves All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson. In the process, she rediscovered her passion for the game.

Dansby Swanson, USWNT star Mallory Pugh battle over best athlete in their relationship for charity

Dansby Swanson joins Charlotte Wilder to discuss the upcoming 60-game MLB season, a stacked Braves lineup and his relationship with USWNT superstar Mallory Pugh.

It helped that she had a strong season with the Chicago Red Stars in 2021, finishing runner-up for NWSL MVP. She’s a contender for the award this year too, scoring 10 goals and leading the league with six assists as her team prepares for the playoffs. She also had one of the more jaw-dropping plays of the year when she took the ball 90 yards up the field and nutmegged two players on her way to scoring.

“The kid is back,” Donaldson says. “I told my staff, I said, ‘Watch out. She’s ready. She looks like the player that we know from years ago.'”

*** *** ***

Anytime Pugh and Smith do something on the field, there’s this palpable, did-you-see-that vibe. They’re dominant players who have been on a tear through the NWSL since they were drafted. 

The national team is the first time they’ve actually played together consistently – Pugh was always two age groups older, though they have trained together when both home in Colorado – and they complement each other well. If the starting lineup in this summer’s CONCACAF Championship match against Canada is any indication, they will likely both start up top alongside Morgan next summer.

But that success comes after a wake-up call for each, one that they believe propelled them to this moment.

Andonovski was the one who made the decision that Smith and Pugh wouldn’t be on his Tokyo Olympics roster last year. It was a devastating moment for two players whose career trajectories only knew an upward direction. 

“I was delivering the tough message,” he said earlier this year. “I had to stand in front of them and tell them how much we believe in them and how much we believe that they’re going to be the future of this team.”

That feeling was evident recently during the USWNT’s international window against England and Spain. The USWNT lost to England 2-1 in a highly-anticipated friendly at a sold-out Wembley Stadium earlier this month. Pugh didn’t play due to a family commitment, but Smith scored in the 28th minute to briefly tie the game 1-1. She would have had an assist, too, had VAR not taken back the Americans’ second goal.

Sophia Smith scores after capitalizing on a costly turnover and brings the US to a 1-1 tie with England

The United States brought the score to 1-1 against England after Sophia Smith scored off a costly turnover.

After the match, Andonovski had high praise for Smith who shifted from her normal position on the wing to play the No. 9 with Morgan absent with a knee injury. The coach said Smith “made a name for herself” and was “a difference-maker.” He also noted: “But I think that we haven’t seen the best of her. These are games that will expedite her development, and I’m excited to see what she looks like six months from now, nine months from now.” 

Three months ago, Smith scored twice in the first eight minutes of a 5-0 win over Donaldson’s Jamaican side during the CONCACAF W Championship. Her first goal was an absolute stunner when she took a long ball by Naomi Girma, flicked it up to beat her defender, then hit a trivela with the outside of her right foot into the back of the net.

Like Andonovski predicts, Donaldson expects big things out of both players during their moment next summer. He’s taking Jamaica to the World Cup, too, but always keeps his eyes on Pugh and Smith.

“It doesn’t matter how you slice it, the U.S. squad-wise, skill-wise and player-wise still has the most depth in the world,” Donaldson says. “If the U.S. is healthy and does what they do well, they’ll be there at the end.”

Pugh and Smith will lead the way, showing why the future of the USWNT is in good hands.

“They obviously have to prove that and their performance in the [NWSL] this year is the best indication that they’re doing that and you can only do it on the biggest stage,” Rapinoe says. “I feel like that’s the obvious next step for them. They’re the obvious starters, they’ve totally earned that and proved that and they’re just taking everything to the next level. They’re playing unbelievable.” 

But Rapinoe put it another way, too: “They’re bonafide superstars.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” was published in spring 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

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