NWSL Week 6 preview and fixtures: Can Mallory Pugh save the Washington Spirit?



Mallory Pugh is expected to make her debut for Washington this weekend, but the Spirit’s problems may be too big for one high-profile signing to fix.

Two years ago, the news at the NWSL draft in Baltimore was that a high school phenom named Mallory Pugh would be skipping college to go pro and that the Thorns had worked some kind of deal to bring her to Portland. That, of course, turned out not to be true, and Pugh instead went on to commit to UCLA. Ultimately, she decided to hold off on starting her career at UCLA due to the U-20 World Cup and being named to the USWNT roster for the 2016 Olympics.

A year later, the Pugh rumor machine fired up again, though this time there was at least a little something to back it up. In April, Pugh announced she’d decided to turn pro rather than head to college. From there, the question became just where Mal Pugh would land. There were whispers that there were teams in Europe, PSG among them, that wanted the 19-year-old. PSG was no stranger to signing talented young Americans: In 2012, the team signed a then-18-year-old Lindsey Horan straight out of high school. She was the first prominent American player to forego college for a big pro contract.

Horan left PSG and now plays in Portland, where she’s been since last season. The Thorns, of course, were reportedly Pugh’s preferred destination, too. The problem for Portland was that the No. 1 spot in the distribution order for unattached players now belonged to the Washington Spirit. If you’re confused about what exactly an unattached player is, here’s the league trying to explain it: An Unattached Federation Individual (UFI) is an Individual who a Federation has designated as a potential Federation Player, but whose rights are not yet controlled by a team.

That definitely defines Pugh, who’s already started to become a fixture on the USWNT. After successful stints with the U-17s and U-20s, Pugh made her debut for the senior national team in January, 2016. She scored in her debut and has added three more goals in 22 appearances.

Now Pugh joins a Spirit team that’s desperately in need of some help. The question: Is Pugh the kind of help they need? The Spirit lost to Seattle 6-2 on Saturday, the same day they announced her signing. Pugh, probably the biggest signing the Spirit’s made in quite some time and certainly a big get for any team, definitely brings another dimension to Washington’s game, but it’s just maybe not the one it needs right now.

A year after coming within seconds of winning the NWSL championship, Washington is at the bottom of the table, with both the worst record and one of the league’s worst goal differentials. Through five games, Washington has won just once and allowed a league-worst 12 goals. The Spirit’s also allowed 93 shots, 21 more than Orlando, the next-worst team in that department. Stephanie Labbe, who’s played all 450 minutes for the Spirit so far this season, leads the league in saves with 27 and is on pace to have a Boston-era Alyssa Naeher-like season.

Last Saturday’s loss to Seattle was particularly bad, and if not for Labbe, who made four saves, things could have been even worse than the six goals Washington allowed. The Spirit’s defense was repeatedly caught watching, struggled to make clearances, and often left players unmarked in dangerous positions.

The loss to the Reign was certainly the worst the Spirit’s looked all season, but it’s also not something entirely new. Washington was dealt a big blow with the loss of midfielder Joanna Lohman to an ACL injury in the first game of this season. But the even bigger issue is that it traded Ali Krieger, one of the last original Spirit players, to Orlando in the offseason and didn’t do much in the way of replacing her.

Washington certainly isn’t getting that by bringing in Pugh, who’s primarily a forward, either. And the Spirit don’t actually need a ton of help offensively. With seven goals scored, Washington’s offense is hardly the league’s worst (hi, FC Kansas City) and is actually on pace with most of the other teams.

Washington could get a little relief this weekend as it takes on FC Kansas City in the first of two consecutive games against a Blues team that’s scored only three goals all season. That relief is only temporary, though, because they still have to play the rest of the season after that.

There is a chance, of course, that Washington is hoping Pugh will have the same kind of impact Rose Lavelle’s had in Boston or that Orlando is kind of getting from Marta — that is, making the team around you at least a little bit better just by being there. The difference between those situations and the Spirit’s, though, is that Boston didn’t just draft Lavelle and then cross its collective fingers and hope everything else would work itself out.

The Breakers made moves beyond Lavelle, including ones to help shore up a defense that hasn’t been great historically. Orlando did kind of do the fingers-crossed thing with Marta, but she’s also Marta and it’s worked, at least a little bit. Pugh’s arrival in Washington is certainly good for ticket sales, and she’s probably the highest profile player the Spirit’s got now that Krieger, Diana Matheson and Ashlyn Harris are all gone. But all that doesn’t do much to fix whatever’s going on the field.

All times Eastern

Friday

Boston Breakers vs. Portland Thorns FC, 7 p.m., Jordan Field (go90)

Saturday

Sky Blue FC vs. Houston Dash, 4 p.m., Yurcak Field (Lifetime)

Washington Spirit vs. FC Kansas City, 7 p.m., Maryland SoccerPlex (go90)

Sunday

North Carolina Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars, 4 p.m., WakeMed Soccer Park (go90)

Seattle Reign FC vs. Orlando Pride, 9:30 p.m., Memorial Stadium (go90)