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Don’t blame Mal Pugh for setting her own terms

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Mal Pugh didn’t create the circumstances around her turning pro - which in fact show that the league is growing.

Russia v United States Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

18-year-old Mallory Pugh is going pro. Despite a full-ride scholarship to UCLA, where she’s only played three spring games so far, she has decided to turn professional.

“UCLA Soccer brought amazing things to my life, and chasing after a national championship with my friends and teammates would've been special, but I could not turn down this opportunity,” Pugh said via UCLA press release.

Pugh’s phrasing makes it sound like there’s at least one offer on the table, a theory sort of confirmed by Grant Wahl, who said Pugh wants to either land with Portland Thorns in NWSL or go to France, where big clubs Lyon and PSG could afford her contract.

There’s some handwringing going on over whether Pugh should do this with her career, either because people are worried about her skipping college or because Pugh going to Portland would require the teams and the clubs involved to twist themselves around a bit to make it happen. Both of these things are not Mal Pugh’s fault and the club situation is in fact an indicator that American women’s soccer is changing and growing.

In the past, a female player skipping college would definitely be cause for worry. There just wasn’t as much money in soccer in the past, not even at the top end, and probably 95% of female players are not going to make enough money playing the game to set themselves up for life after retirement. So a four-year college degree is incredibly important for female players, because after they retire they move on to “real” jobs that continue to pay the bills. Even now it’s only the Alex Morgans and Carli Lloyds who can really command top dollar, which includes big endorsement deals with the likes of Nike or Adidas.

Mal Pugh is not 95% of female players. She was first capped with the WNT at 17 and has already racked up 22 caps since her 2016 debut. She is clearly going to be one of the young players the team rebuilds around looking towards 2019 and 2023, and in her handful of college games was head-and-shoulders above most of her peers. Pugh has the opportunity to get a federation contract, now worth in the realm of $200-300k with bonuses after the USWNT negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, as well as top sponsorship dollars. Should she desire a college education, UCLA will be there waiting for her, and she’ll be able to afford it after years of maximizing her earning potential.

As for Portland and Washington having to work out whatever deal to get Pugh where she wants, it’s like this: the Washington Spirit are #1 in the federation allocation order. Whatever WNT player is allocated next, the Spirit get first crack at her, probably just as they hoped they would when they traded with the Boston Breakers to move up from #2 on the list. But as per Grant Wahl, Pugh does not want to play for the Spirit, which is not unfair. The Spirit are a much smaller organization than Portland and they’ve recently had a lot of negative press due to a curmudgeonly (to put it lightly) owner who has made it clear he wants things done his way. Pugh also has a pre-existing relationship with the Thorns, however tenuous.

So Pugh is now trying to work out a deal that sees her land in Portland if she stays in NWSL, and there’s some concern that the league would let her circumvent the allocation order like this, as well as the imbalance of having yet another WNT player on Portland’s roster. But the circumstances of this situation are not Pugh’s fault. She didn’t create the allocation process, nor did she create the disparity between Portland and Washington. Why shouldn’t a player aim to go to the team she thinks is the best? It’s up to the teams and the league to say no if the deal would hurt them.

Part of the discussion may be that for a very long time, the narrative around American woso was “team first.” By extension this also means the league, especially after the collapses of WUSA and WPS. There is a certain amount of (justified) paranoia around making sure NWSL survives, and perhaps Pugh is making people anxious about balance and consistency in NWSL, where one of the strongest selling points is team parity. But now more generational talent and more money are entering the game and we’re all having to adjust to a moving landscape. When NWSL launched in 2013, could anyone have predicted what it would be like in 2017, especially with their new three-year deal with A+E networks taking an equity stake in the league? Pugh almost certainly would not have been able to make this ask in 2013, or if she did, there would be far less hesitation from the clubs to tell her to take a hike or come back with a more reasonable offer. The very fact of Pugh asking for these conditions now is an indicator that we are slowly but surely being able to move away from players having to always sacrifice their best interest to ensure the survival of the league. And there’s also the fact that honestly, not many other players besides Pugh could make this ask, making it less worrisome that this will become a trend.

Also, to some extent, the clubs did this to themselves. Several clubs have shown willingness to accommodate high-profile players with moves to accommodate their personal needs. Sydney Leroux eventually made her way to FC Kansas City to be closer to her husband, Dom Dwyer, who plays for Sporting KC. And who could forget the trade pretzel that went on to get Alex Morgan to Orlando? Mal Pugh seeing that clubs will sometimes be willing to make deals to move players where they’ll be happy is once again not her fault.

There is an added wrench with the complication of Pugh having the leverage to walk away and make beaucoup dollars in France if Washington doesn’t trade her to Portland. But that’s just another indicator that the game is growing, this time not just in America. Big time money has entered the game in France and England and while it is creating a growing imbalance in those leagues, it’s also an impetus for other rich owners to step up their game and invest in women’s soccer. NWSL shouldn’t follow those examples to the letter; a slowly-growing salary cap and careful management of costs is what has gotten the league to year five, past any of its predecessors. But knowing that top talent can leave for the kind of high-flying experience that Lyon or Manchester City can offer could help NWSL set goals for where they need ownership groups to be in three or five years, which in turn helps them avoid future situations with players only wanting Portland (or Orlando, or Houston, or whatever clubs in the league have the most money and resources).

So Mal Pugh can do what she wants. She’s earned it through her skill and hard work and shouldn’t feel bad about laying down her terms. It’s up to the clubs, the league, and USSF to say no if the terms are unfavorable. Yes, there’s a bit of balancing act going here with the optics of yet another high-profile American leaving for Europe, making it perhaps more important to keep Pugh in NWSL. But once again, Pugh didn’t create that situation. At that point USSF can tell Pugh perhaps she won’t get a WNT contract unless she stays in NWSL, which while unfair from a free movement of labor point of view, is still one of the things the federation can do as part of their investment in NWSL and demonstrates that Pugh is not just making ultimatums that USSF is powerless to do anything but accept. If NWSL collapses because Mal Pugh went to France, then how stable was the league in the first place? This is a test, one which NWSL will hopefully manage to endure to the benefit of all parties involved.