Mallory Pugh // Photo: courtesy of the Washington Spirit

Women’s World Cup Champs Look Ahead

The sound of cicadas echoed loudly outside of FedExField, and the summer sun beamed unforgivably onto the concrete. My eyes adjusted to the dark of the tunnel as I passed through the depths of the stadium and onto the pitch. Immediately, my ears recognized the short, urgent calls of the Washington Spirit players communicating seamlessly to each other as they trained.

As I made my way over to the group of other media day attendees on July 22, I noticed their cameras trained on two players in particular: 21-year-old Mallory Pugh and 24-year-old Rose Lavelle. All eyes were on the pair, still riding the high from their 2019 Women’s World Cup win on July 7 and kicking back into gear for the second half of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season.

Pugh experienced rapid success very early in her career, receiving her Olympic callup at 17. The youngest American to debut on the national team in 11 years, her skill and success has the nation optimistic for the future of American soccer.

Star midfielder Lavelle is coming off of a critical shot for the U.S. in the 69th minute of the World Cup Final against the Netherlands. The landmark goal not only clinched the record for most team goals in a single FIFA Women’s World Cup, but also distinguished Lavelle as the second youngest American to score in a World Cup Final. Her exceptional performance in Paris earned her the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Bronze Ball.

Not only are these two young women living out their dreams on the international stage, they’re also experiencing success together as roommates and best friends.

“I have been so privileged and honored just to be around her,” Pugh said about Lavelle, giving her friend a sideways glance along the interview table at FedExField. “When she scored her first goal, I started crying. I was so happy for her.”

Pugh sat back after speaking to Lavelle’s inspirational and supportive role in her life. She whispered a sincere, “Thanks Rosie,” and the two young women exchanged a moment of mutual understanding and gratitude.

“That’s hard to follow up,” Lavelle laughed. “I know Mal’s younger than me, but I’ve always looked up to her. When you get to do what you love with people you love, it makes it that much more fun.”

Pugh switched gears to the remainder of the NWSL season, saying the team is very focused. The athletes hope the national attention garnered from the World Cup win will increase the attention on their regular season play, but the panel of female athletes expressed some skepticism.

“It’s almost been frustrating,” said team captain Andi Sullivan. “You have those same players that you saw in the World Cup – they’re all here. So, why are people not engaging with it?”

Head Coach Richie Burke echoed Sullivan’s sentiments, pointing out that his “world-class” team is “underpaid, underrecognized, underappreciated.” However, Burke expressed that the newly signed ESPN and Budweiser partnerships are steps in the right direction. His comments were met with concurring nods from all the players. This will be the first time in history that the NWSL will have a broadcast agreement with ESPN.

“Any exposure we can get is wonderful,” Pugh said. “I want people to see what we can do.”

As the interview continued, it became evident that certain themes will resurface over the course of the 2019 season and Spirit seasons to come. First, the team will have to face a reality where achieving the viewership they believe they deserve will continue to be an uphill battle. Also, their pursuit of equal pay will not slow with the sunset of the 2019 Women’s World Cup win. The players looked confident that vying for both viewership and satisfactory compensation are contests they can win.

With the resolve of someone beyond her years, Pugh commented, “Everyone is saying how competitive and how great this league is, and I think people just need to see that. Now that we have the option and they actually can do that, it’s absolutely amazing.”

#PackThePlex and join the Washington Spirit at the Maryland SoccerPlex for the remainder of their 2019 season, which runs through early October. Catch home games this month on Saturday, August 10, Wednesday, August 21 and Saturday, August 24. Tickets start at $25. Visit www.washingtonspirit.com for more information.

Maryland SoccerPlex: 18031 Central Park Cir. Boyds, MD; 301-591-0927; www.washingtonspirit.com