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18-year-old USWNT star Mallory Pugh is turning pro on her terms, not NWSL’s

No one knows where Pugh will sign, but she’s the one calling the shots. U.S. Soccer can’t make her do anything.

South Africa v United States Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

United States women’s national team star Mallory Pugh has decided to forgo her NCAA eligibility and turn professional before stepping foot onto a college field. She redshirted her freshman year at UCLA to play at the Under-20 World Cup, but she won’t be sticking around for the Bruins’ season in the fall.

Pugh’s timing is less than ideal for her and any potential suitors. The National Women’s Soccer League just kicked off their season, while most European leagues and the UEFA Champions League only have a month of play left before they shut down for the summer.

So who is she going to play for? Well ... we don’t know yet. We don’t know who’s going to pay her salary either. All we know is that Pugh decided there’s a big market for her services right now, so she wants to take advantage of that. The story about where she lands and why is going to be a complicated one.

You might have questions, and we have some answers.

I’m new here, who’s Mallory Pugh?

Pugh is just 18 years old, and she’s the best prospect in the history of American soccer. Her combination of speed, dribbling, technique, and vision are unparalleled for someone her age. Here, watch some goals.

Her goalscoring is great, but there are lots of fast 18-year-olds who score a lot. What really sets her apart from her peers is her passing vision and quick decision making. Check out this stoppage-time assist for a winner against France.

Pugh has done her best work as a left winger for the USWNT, but she’s showed skills at right wing, attacking midfield, and striker too. It’s too early to say what her best position is going to be. She’s already very good at four of them.

Why now?

The biggest factor in Pugh making this decision now, rather than last season or putting it off for another year, seems to be the USWNT collective bargaining agreement. Under the old deal, Pugh would have made in the high-five or low-six figures as a full-time national team player. Under the new deal, she should make $200,000 per year or more.

It’s also likely that Pugh didn’t have a huge foreign market last year. But now clubs have had a chance to see her at the Olympics, and she has 22 caps for the national team. With a larger body of work against top competition to evaluate, top European clubs are probably a lot more interested now than they were 15 months ago.

What happened last year?

Pugh had the opportunity to turn pro in 2016 when NWSL created a mechanism for seemingly the sole purpose of getting her into the league on the team she wanted to be on. The unattached allocation order was created, giving NWSL teams a way to sign federation subsidized players who couldn’t be drafted or signed as “Discovery” players, meaning from another team outside NWSL.

Boston Breakers were given the top spot as the team with the worst record, but traded it to Portland Thorns for the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Portland was the team Pugh wanted to play for, and Boston decided they were offered adequate compensation to make that work.

But Pugh backed out of the deal at the 11th hour, opting to commit to UCLA instead. Some people are mad about Pugh getting so close to turning pro, deciding against it, then changing her mind a year later because they forgot what it was like to be a teenager.

At the end of last season, Portland lost the top allocation spot, and that now belongs to the Washington Spirit through a series of trades. Mallory Pugh does not want to play for the Washington Spirit.

What’s so bad about playing for the Spirit?

The Spirit finished second in NWSL last season, then made it to the championship game. They then proceeded to gut their roster. Now they’re probably the worst team in the league. This is both my personal opinion and the opinion of most NWSL media.

You may recall an incident where the Spirit played the national anthem while players were still in the locker room to stop Megan Rapinoe’s protest. After the game, Rapinoe noted that the Spirit are the only team in NWSL that does not have an LGBTQ pride night and called Spirit owner Bill Lynch homophobic, citing conversations with Spirit players.

This offseason, the Spirit traded four popular stars — Ali Krieger, Megan Oyster, Christine Nairn, and Diana Matheson. They did not receive an allocated national team player or a top-15 draft pick in any of those trades.

Two other key players — Estefania Banini and Crystal Dunn — opted to sign overseas. Additionally, all of Caprice Dydasco, Kelsey Wys, Cali Farquharson, and Joanna Lohman have suffered a torn ACL in the last eight months.

2016 NWSL Championship Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Spirit’s combination of bad reputation, bad roster management, and bad luck makes them arguably the least attractive destination in NWSL for any player at present. It’s unsurprising that Pugh is uninterested in playing for them.

What can NWSL do about this?

No one knows. This sure would be a good time to have a commissioner around. Jeff Plush stepped down during the offseason and hasn’t been replaced. Amanda Duffy, the NWSL’s managing director for operations, has become the de facto public-facing commissioner in the absence of someone with that job title, and it’s not clear how much she (or anyone else at NWSL headquarters) wants to interfere in this process.

Given that the Spirit traded both Krieger and Oyster in two separate deals to move up to the top spot in the allocation ranking, they clearly had a suspicion that they’d get to use it and valued the players they might get with that allocation slot. Pugh is a player that would help them on the field a ton and would be a huge marketing boost. They’d have to get an enormous offer from Portland to be willing to trade the slot. They will not give up Pugh quietly or easily.

What happens if the Spirit won’t make a trade and Pugh refuses to play for them?

She’ll go to Europe, and probably France. SI’s Grant Wahl is reporting that the top two teams in France, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, are interested. In the event the USWNT hands Pugh a full contract and she signs with PSG or Lyon, she’ll make a lot more in base salary than she would have in NWSL.

But when they announced the new CBA, the USWNT players reaffirmed their commitment to playing in NWSL. It’s not going to go over well with the league if Pugh is handed a full national team contract while opting to skip out on the league completely.

It’s possible that Pugh could go to Europe, not be signed by the USWNT, but still get called up to the national team and paid on a per-appearance basis. She could still potentially make more money doing that than she would playing in NWSL.

The USWNT wouldn’t be thrilled with that. They’d probably like to have their best young player under contract with them, under their control, and will be annoyed if NWSL is unable to find a way to get Pugh in the league.

What kind of precedent does this set? Isn’t it bad for NWSL if good players only want to play for a tiny handful of teams?

Maybe, but this is a problem that affects basically every sports league ever. Eventually, good players will figure out how to play together in the most desirable environments, leaving teams with bad owners or ones in bad markets to pick up the pieces in rebuild.

Russia v United States Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

If the other NWSL teams don’t like that Portland and the Orlando Pride get to sign more top players than everyone else, they should work on building clubs that players actually want to sign for, or sell their teams. No one is entitled to own a team in an entirely fair league with a completely even talent distribution process. Labor will always make self-benefiting decisions and it’s up to teams to provide labor with a good value proposition. Right now, the Spirit and a handful of other NWSL teams don’t offer Pugh much of a value proposition at all.

Soccer is also particularly tricky compared to the other major American team sports because there’s a huge overseas market. If you don’t like the NFL team you’re assigned to, you’re shoot out of luck. If you don’t like the NWSL team you’re assigned to, you can give them the middle finger and sign for one of the dozen other teams in a half-dozen other countries that’s willing to pay you as much or more money. That’s a problem that it’s impossible for NWSL to solve for without eliminating the salary cap and player movement restrictions altogether.

So U.S. Soccer is probably going to strong-arm NWSL into trying to strong-arm one of its teams into making a trade it doesn’t want to make?

Yes, that seems extremely likely.

I don’t like this, why does an 18-year-old get to call all the shots?

Because she’s the best 18-year-old player we’ve ever seen, and for that reason she is extremely in demand.

Shouldn’t she just be happy that she’s going to make six figures to play soccer anywhere she goes?

No. If it bothers you that an 18-year-old has this much power, you should probably just work really hard to get better at whatever it is you do and stop being jealous all the time. Mallory Pugh rules and she shouldn’t accept anything less than an ideal situation, because she doesn’t have to.