- - Sunday, May 21, 2017

Jim Gabarra departed for Los Angeles earlier this month, not for a sales pitch but a dialogue.

U.S. national team starter Mallory Pugh had announced her decision to leave UCLA, and the Washington Spirit had the first crack at acquiring the 19-year-old attacker. While a move to the growing National Women’s Soccer League seemed like a logical step, Pugh also found herself with European suitors. An offseason overhaul posed questions about the state of the Spirit, as well.

So Gabarra told Pugh about Washington’s top-notch training facilities at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds. The Spirit coach also endorsed the club’s increasing commitment to sports science. And he listed off the national team regulars he had coached over the years, from legends like Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach to rising U.S. star Crystal Dunn.

“It was basically, ‘Do you want to come here or do you want to play in Europe?’” Gabarra said. “Then it’s up to her. I can’t influence her one way or the other. All I could do was give her all the information and create a relationship with her, and say, ‘Look, if you do come here we’re going to take care of you.’

“There were never any thoughts I had to go sell her on me or the club.”

After spending his off-day in Southern California, Gabarra took a red-eye back east in time for training the next morning. Two weeks later, Washington used the top slot in the NWSL’s distribution ranking order to sign Pugh.

“In life you just need to experience stuff,” Pugh said. “I think for me, at this point in my life, I just wanted to step out of my comfort zone and push myself into a new level.”

Although Pugh spent just four months at UCLA, never playing a competitive game, she joins the Spirit with 22 international appearances to her name. Last summer, she became the youngest Olympic goal-scorer in U.S. history.

A speedy attacker capable of playing out wide or underneath a striker, Pugh figures to provide a welcome jolt for a squad in the league’s cellar. In forgoing the college game — a decision almost unheard of in women’s soccer — Pugh hopes a professional environment will further her development going into the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

“This league is going to grow so much,” Pugh said. “Staying here, it’s going to help my growth and I think it’s going to be better because it can help Washington Spirit win games, and help the national team hopefully win games as well.”

While the Spirit came within seconds of claiming the NWSL title last fall, just six of the 11 players who started the championship game remain with the club. Among the departures: Dunn, captain Ali Krieger and leading scorer Estefania Banini.

Before signing Pugh, Washington was the only team in the NWSL without a U.S. national team regular under contract. As the pressure piles on Pugh, from on-the-field impact to off-the-field marketability, the club is preaching patience.

“It’s important that we let Mal enjoy the process and really be free to learn and develop, and not say she’s coming in here to lift this team up,” Gabarra said. “This team is in a good place and we’re welcoming the injection of energy and youth and the quality she’s going to bring without setting the bar way, way high.”

Added Spirit captain Shelina Zadorsky: “You learn a lot from the players around you, and we’re here to answer questions and we’re here to push her and help her get better each and every day.”

The reality, however, is that Pugh already has become the Spirit’s most recognizable figure.

Amid high expectations, Pugh wants to keep her head low.

“It’s just all about playing and trying to win games and trying to make an impact,” Pugh said. “The most important thing is trying to develop and just having fun with it.”

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