Only Getting Started
Unlike Press and McCaffrey, 17-year-old Mallory Pugh is what could be considered a veteran of the Youth National Team circuit. She was one of the top scorers in her U-17 WNT cycle and was named to the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup roster when she was just 16 years old. She is currently the U-20 WNT captain and most recently led the way for the USA at the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship in Honduras, helping the team win the title and secure a berth to the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup. And along the way she earned the Golden Boot and Golden Ball as the top scorer and top player of the tournament.
Despite her young age, Pugh is no stranger to coming up big during important moments. Her experiences have helped her mature faster, handle herself well, and understand the responsibilities that come with playing at the next level. It’s one of the many reasons the 17-year old was chosen to captain a team with several players who are older than her. It’s also not surprising why Pugh received her first invitation to the senior WNT camp just days after winning the CONCACAF title in Honduras.
“I remember I had just gotten back from Honduras and I was at the airport in Denver about to go home, and I checked my email and there it was,” said Pugh. “I was super excited and more nervous than anything. But it was a great opportunity and I was excited.”
A few weeks later, Pugh was off to California to join 26 senior WNT players at the 2016 January Camp. She knew some of the players, as they had been on youth teams together, but in general this was a whole new ball game for the youngster. At first, she will admit, it was rather intimidating. The speed of play was blazing and some of the players were 10 or more years older than her.
“This was different than what I was used to,” admitted Pugh. “I was nervous, oh yeah. I remembered walking into the meal room and just seeing everyone and just thinking, ‘oh my gosh, this is so weird.’ I was just quiet, but then as the week went on, and the soccer came along, everything came together and I loosened up.”
After three weeks of intense training, the U.S. women made the trip to San Diego to face the Republic of Ireland in their first friendly of the year. Pugh was told she would suit up, but she had no idea if she would see the field. Knowing it was her first time at a senior camp, her first time being involved at the senior level, she felt ok okay if she didn’t play. Maybe it wasn’t her time just yet.
But her moment came 58 minutes into the contest.
The referee raised her flag to announce a USA substitution and it was forward Alex Morgan who began jogging off the field. Morgan, who had scored earlier in the match, was celebrating her 100th game with the WNT, while Pugh was about to enter her first, a sweet contrast between two important moments in the career of two players, one reaching the century mark, and the other becoming the youngest player to debut for the U.S. WNT since 2005.
Pugh entered the match, got a touch on the ball and allowed the excitement she was feeling to overpower the nerves. Having her teammates around was important to her. They gave her an extra boost of confidence she didn’t know she needed. A few weeks prior she was guiding the U-20s and now the reigning World Cup champions were guiding her.
Then Pugh etched her name in the record books. In the 83rd minute, Christen Press hit a chipped cross assist that was headed home on a slashing run into the box by the 5-foot-4 Pugh. She became the youngest player to score for the U.S. in the last 16 years and the most recent addition to the first cap, first goal club.
“I don’t really remember how the goal happened,” said Pugh. “It was so fast, but I do remember not even looking to see if it went in. I just heard the crowd go crazy and I ran straight to Press. The fact that she scored on her first cap and I did too… I could just tell when I hugged her that she understood what had happened. She had the biggest smile on her face because she had been there and had done that too.”
It wasn’t just Press who was smiling. Everyone hoped they had witnessed the beginning of a special career.
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup