We need to start getting more specific when we talk about Mallory Pugh.
Pugh has shaken off whatever cobwebs remained from her time away with the USWNT this summer, and has scored four goals and notched three assists in three games. Her performance on Wednesday against the league-leading Kansas City Current might have been her magnum opus.
For a long time, Pugh has been described as a speedy striker, someone who can torch backlines and create advantageous moments in isolation. It’s true that her natural speed with the ball at her feet is one of the best in the world—she’s arguably faster with the ball at her feet than without it.
But she’s not the only player in the NWSL with an impressive peak speed at a sprint, and those tools frequently aren’t enough to make a player undroppable at both the club and international level. Pugh took a big step forward last year in her ability to get into dangerous spaces, but this year she’s become Neo entering the Matrix in manipulating that space around her.
Mal Pugh sees things on a soccer field that other players don’t always see. She’s aware of spaces opening up in front of her, and areas with which to run into to receive the ball. She’s also perhaps underrated in her evaluation of dead ball situations (her penalty kick record notwithstanding.)
All three of her assists in the last three games have come from either corner kicks or free kicks, and the ability to punch in set piece goals has been crucial for Chicago to overcome their scoring struggles.
The way a soccer game slows down for Pugh can sometimes come at a detriment, when her teammates aren’t on the same page, but rather than it coming from an inordinate amount of offside calls (like the ones Sam Kerr racked up in her last year with the team), she sometimes finds herself alone in situations where she needs help.
She still has the on-ball ability to manipulate situations even when she’s at a numerical disadvantage, frequently decelerating and finding one of her defensive midfielders to maintain possession. What that means is that her acceleration is always a deliberate choice, and not a default mode of operating.
Let’s look at her first goal on Wednesday, a 90-yard run and dribble barnburner that included two soft-touch nutmegs and a rounding of the goalkeeper. It should be a Puskas award nominee.
Kansas City had opened up in transition, pushing for an equalizer after giving up an early goal on yet another corner kick chance generated by Pugh’s dead ball ability. Zoe Morse clears the ball to Pugh, who anticipates the pressure of defender Kristen Edmonds behind her. Pugh deftly pushes the ball between Edmonds’s legs, and suddenly the whole field opened up in front of her.
The first nutmeg was essential to creating the space Pugh needed to run, but the second was another example of how when Elizabeth Ball came in to close down space, Chicago’s MVP candidate was thinking at another speed.
Kansas City keeper Cassie Miller made an attempt at the ball, but Pugh shifted the ball over to her left foot (which she’s doing with more regularity) to slot the goal home.
Now, not to say that Pugh’s speed isn’t a key factor to her ability to win footraces, but the timing of her acceleration is what gave her a chance on her second tally of the night.
Ella Stevens was battling with two Kansas City players for possession, which left the ball briefly unclaimed just past the halfway line. Pugh then swooped in like a free-safety ready to convert a pick-six, going from a jog to top speed in a matter of seconds.
The rest of the sequence was just a classic Pugh goal, where the striker cut inside to put the ball on her right foot at the top of the box, and getting the right shot off immediately before Kansas City’s central defenders could collapse in on the available space
Pugh’s ability to put on the burners is important, but she becomes unstoppable when she pairs her abilities with that sense of visionary calm that not only helps a player make a key interception, but slot the ball in before the opportunity disappears
A little bit of help
While Pugh did the lion’s share of the work, neither of these goals happen without Ella Stevens beside her. Sometimes at a glance it can look like Pugh goes solo too often, or even on the first goal she missed a pass to Stevens inside.
But I’m not sure when Pugh calls her own number she’s necessarily wrong. She is the key attacking generator for the team, and she’s finishing these chances more often than not. But without Stevens’s commitment to making the run with her, Miller has an easier decision to make to cut Pugh’s angle off in the final motion before the strike. She has to worry about Stevens on the other side, which gives Pugh the space to complete the unlikely.
Similarly with the second goal, Stevens is holding her own against half the Kansas City midfield, giving Pugh just enough time to swoop in and carry the ball towards the Current’s box. Chris Petrucelli said last weekend that Stevens has been earning her starts in training, and by all accounts she deserves to stay in the starting XI in the way she’s doing all the little things right to get Chicago’s attack flowing again.
As the Red Stars maneuver through their treacherous end to the regular season, Pugh’s playmaking, and her teammates’ commitment to help, is turning into goals. They’ve done almost just enough to ensure a playoff spot. No time to take the foot off the gas now.
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