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USWNT star Mallory Pugh signs with Washington Spirit, who bet everything on her being a superstar

Despite reports that she was unwilling to play for the Spirit, Pugh has decided to join after the team made it clear they would not trade her rights.

Russia v United States Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images

Mallory Pugh has announced that she’s joining the Washington Spirit, much to the surprise of the women’s soccer world. When Pugh announced three weeks ago that she’d be leaving UCLA to turn professional, this appeared to be the least likely outcome. But the Spirit refused to buy into that narrative, and as it turns out, they were right. They’ve got the player they built their entire offseason plan around acquiring.

This offseason, the Spirit made a series of trades to move up to the top spot in the unattached allocation order, meaning that they’d have first dibs if a player having their salary paid by the American or Canadian federation were to enter the league without going through the draft. They were banking on Pugh or another player becoming available, which is exactly what happened.

Though Pugh’s preference was to play for the Portland Thorns, the Spirit was reportedly unwilling to negotiate a trade of the No. 1 unattached allocation slot, despite Pugh negotiating with Paris Saint-Germain. Had Pugh gone to France, the Spirit would have ended up with nothing and lost an opportunity to flip Pugh’s rights for valuable assets.

And now all of that concern is irrelevant, because Pugh is a Spirit player. So what does that mean?

Pugh should make the Spirit better immediately

Even though Pugh is a 19-year-old rookie, her play with the United States women’s national team suggests that she’ll instantly be one of the Spirit’s best players. Because their roster was effectively gutted this offseason in the pursuit of Pugh and other younger players that head coach and general manager Jim Gabarra thought would fit into his system, they’re thin everywhere and she’ll be a starter very quickly.

What’s her best position?

This is to be determined. Pugh has played as a winger, attacking midfielder, striker, and even wingback under Jill Ellis for the USWNT. While the latter position can be ruled out entirely, the other’s can’t. We might see Pugh as a second striker next to Francisca Ordega or Katie Stengel up top, on one of the wings, or as the Spirit’s most attacking midfielder.

The other thing making Pugh’s best position hard to pin down is that Gabarra hasn’t settled on a formation. He favors athletic players and quick counter-attacks over possession, but he’s shown a willingness to play 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 during his time with the Spirit. Pugh could play as an attack-minded center mid in either formation, as a wide player in the former and as a striker in the latter.

Hopefully Gabarra provides some insight into how he wants to utilize Pugh on Saturday.

So, did the Spirit win their roundabout tradeapalooza?

The jury’s out, but probably not. When you put all related trades together, assuming the draft picks they let go of stay the same, it looks like this.

Spirit trade:

DF Ali Krieger
DF Megan Oyster
MF Morgan Andrews
FW Margaret Purce

Spirit receive:

FW Mallory Pugh
MF Kristie Mewis
DF Kasey Kallman

Right now, it’s impossible to judge most of these players. Pugh hasn’t played a pro club game, Andrews has been limited while finishing her degree, and Purce is a spectacular athlete who was always likely to be a longer-term project than other first-round players because she didn’t play at the highest level in college. It also helps the Spirit’s argument for these being good deals that Krieger is in poor form with Orlando Pride at the moment.

But Mewis and Kallman haven’t played like more than solid squad players for most of their NWSL careers, and have not yet looked more than serviceable for the Spirit. Meanwhile, Oyster has been a major part of Boston’s turnaround after a disastrous 2016, while the Spirit — who have let in six goals so far — look like they could really use her. Andrews has also been effective in limited substitute duty, and her performances at every USWNT youth level suggest she’s on a path to being a well above-average NWSL starter.

We can probably separate out Krieger and Purce for Mewis and Kallman as a fairly even swap of a declining star who is now a decent starter and a low floor, high ceiling prospect for two solid role players. The real meat of the deal is Oyster — a very good starter — and Andrews — a high upside and low-risk prospect — for Pugh.

So a club has bet the farm on a 19-year-old. No pressure!

The Spirit thought it was worth doing everything they could this summer to have the best chance of landing Pugh in the event that she decided to turn pro. They rated her highly enough to get rid of good starters who were popular with their fans and first round draft picks to have a shot to land her. So for the Spirit to come out ahead in these trades, they need Pugh to be a huge on-pitch and business boom. Her presence needs to be directly attributable to wins, sellouts, and new sponsorship.

Pugh is much more than just another talented young player. She’s the new face of a franchise and the emerging face of NWSL. If she’s anything less than an NWSL Best XI candidate by next season, she’ll likely be considered a bust.

And that narrative wasn’t decided by me or anyone else but Washington Spirit management — the trades made to get her dictate that. They gave up two very good starters with USWNT caps, plus the No. 3 and No. 9 overall picks. Not for a guarantee of signing Pugh, but for the chance to sign Pugh. Forgive the cross-sport analogies, but in other leagues, that’s roughly the going rate for the rookie version of Bryce Harper or Elena Delle Donne. If you prefer an NWSL analogy, it’s more than the Orlando Pride gave up to get established superstar Alex Morgan, so Pugh seems to be the most valuable player in the league.

Soon, we’ll find out if she was worth it.