Tim Hall’s View From 101
Pugh turns 19 later this month. Last year, in 2016. Pugh became the youngest player ever to score in their debut for the US National Team, and the youngest player to ever score for the US in the Olympics. For a national team that, after the last World Cup cycle, was desperate to throw out the roster and start from scratch to get younger, Pugh has risen to the top and represents the forefront of the American soccer youth movement.
So it would be no surprise, framed this way, to get word of the announcement this week that Pugh would be leaving college early to capitalize on this early success and begin a professional career, provided we were talking about a Stephen Pugh or James Pugh or such. It’s frankly what we expect our best young male athletes to do, especially in other sports. They head off to college for a year or two of finishing, maturing and growing into their own bodies, and then it’s off to the spotlight of the professional ranks. The rest of us can sit around doing some well-intentioned beard stroking and lament these young men didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to have a free college education that would last well beyond their use as a professional athlete, but the allure of millions of dollars now is difficult – if not impossible – for any 19 year old to resist.
But in this example, we’re not talking about a seven-foot basketball prodigy, and we’re also not talking about a Stephen or a James. This is Mallory Pugh, arguably the best and brightest wunderkind of the US Women’s National Team, who after much hemming and hawing, has decided to give UCLA a miss entirely and head straight into the professional ranks.
As far as young prospects go, Mallory Pugh is seen as a can’t miss, and every team in the National Women’s Soccer League would rightly trip over themselves to sign the young forward, who, if not an immediate starter, would be an immediate impact player for any team in the league.
But the NWSL is not the NFL or the NBA, and it’s not even Major League Soccer. There are not millions to be made here – at least, not in the contract to play the sport. Sponsorship deals are another discussion. And at least in MLS there is the choice between going through college or going through a team’s in-house academy, a choice that women do not as yet get to make here. But Mallory Pugh’s decision does reflect a changing time for American women’s soccer players and athletes across the board, and it’s a shift that has happened rapidly.
But let us start at the beginning. The NWSL has now survived longer than any attempt at a top-flight American women’s soccer league, beginning its fifth season this past weekend. It has done this, and succeeded where others have failed, via a commitment from US, Mexican and Canadian footballing authorities to subsidize salaries for the very top players, ensuring the stars would be there for fans to come see, and in so doing, pay the salaries of the rest of the team.
This is by no means a perfect model, and one must wonder how long it can be sustained before one or all three federations demand the training wheels be removed. Already cracks in the foundation have appeared, and players such as US captain Carli Lloyd and star forward Alex Morgan choosing to play for Manchester City and Lyon, respectively.
But the braintrust behind NWSL, much like MLS before them, will tell you that this is a marathon and not a sprint, and before this 2017 season started that marathon got a big boost towards respectability and legitimacy, as it was announced that the league’s guaranteed minimum salary would double. Now, granted, that puts the minimum at $15,000, which is not exactly retirement money but, for the first time, is above the US federal poverty guideline for a single person. And considering just five years ago that the original minimum salary was just $6,000, it shows marked improvement.
This is, sadly, not to say that anyone in NWSL is getting rich, necessarily. But at a maximum salary, which is not outside the realm of possibility for Mallory Pugh to command, $41,000 is not bad money for a 19 year old.
This increase did not happen just out of the kindness of the owners’ hearts because that never happens in professional sports or, really, anywhere. Instead, as ever before, a living wage was fought for by the union, and here once more the fates of the domestic professional league and the national team intersect. It was announced on April 5 that US Soccer and the US Women’s players union had agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, ending a protracted negotiation and legal battle that had seen threats of strikes, lockouts and even boycotting the Olympic games.
As negotiations go, neither side got all that they wanted, but both get to walk away feeling like winners. For the players, they were able to secure better accommodations, an improvement in standards in NWSL and an increase in salaries for the US National Team players that ply their trade in the domestic league.
It was, in part, this battle for equitable pay and treatment that recently allowed the United Stated Women’s Hockey Team to threaten a boycott of the World Championships. If US Women’s Soccer are one of only six nations that really matter in the world, than in hockey they are one of only two alongside Canada, so a weakened or non-existent American team would have rendered the tournament pointless. But in the end a deal was struck and the US went on to win gold.
It is into this world that Mallory Pugh can make the decision to forego college and become a professional, and the ability to make that choice, in and of itself, marks a major moment in women’s soccer and women’s sports in this country. For a while yet, this will likely be a decision reserved for a rarefied pantheon of great players, but it always only takes one to be the first.