REIMS, France — By taking their own paths to the World Cup, Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh are redefining the future direction of the U.S. women.
In 2012, Horan became the first U.S. woman to skip college, giving up her scholarship to North Carolina to play professionally in France. Four years later, Pugh left UCLA without ever having played a game to sign with the Washington Spirit of the NWSL.
“It just goes to show how much this sport has really grown and how much the players from the past have helped pave this path, so that I can be someone who is able to leave college and play,” Pugh said.
Turning pro right out of college – or even younger – is still not a common choice. But it is an option, as it has long been for male players.
More than that, though, is what getting a jump start on their professional careers has done for Horan and Pugh. They are the two most exciting young players on the U.S. squad, possibly in the world, and their performances at this World Cup are likely to go a long way toward determining whether the Americans can defend the trophy they won four years ago.
The United States plays its first game Tuesday, against Thailand.
Veteran defender Ali Krieger called Horan “one of the most skillful players I’ve ever seen play the game.” U.S. coach Jill Ellis calls Pugh a “special” player. Would that still be the case had both followed the traditional route for a U.S. woman – youth national teams, college, senior national team?
But there is no denying that the early exposure to top-level talent, along with the added maturity that comes from going against the grain, has shaped them. And their games.
“At the time, (opening doors) is definitely not what I was thinking. It was more so what was best for me and what I needed to do to reach my goals,” Horan said Saturday.
Horan had always dreamed of playing overseas; she is a huge Lionel Messi fan, and grew up watching European soccer. French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais actually courted Horan before her senior year in high school, but she knew she wasn’t ready to make the jump yet.
The following year, however, she was.
Her decision to sign with Paris Saint-Germain – Lyon no longer had an international spot available – caused some backlash in the United States, but that was nothing compared to the culture shock she encountered in France.
“For me, I learned so much in a different way and a more uncomfortable way. Obviously, I didn’t speak the language and I had to grow up really quickly,” Horan said. “On the field, I got to play with some of the best players in the world, from Germany, Sweden, France — I can name five more countries.
“That was the most incredible thing for me. It wasn’t just the coaching staff that taught me. I got to learn the French tactical way and then learn from all these players who’ve been on the world stage for so long.”
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While playing overseas had been one of Horan’s dreams, so, too, was being a mainstay with the national team, and it eventually became clear she couldn’t do both. (Why not, when the men do without issue, is a question for U.S. Soccer.) In early 2016, she returned to the United States, signing with the Portland Thorns. She led the Thorns to the NWSL title in 2017 and is the reigning MVP of the league.
New Zealand coach Tom Sermanni, who gave Horan her first cap in 2013 when he was the U.S. coach, marvels at how complete her game has become. She can be a playmaker but has the vision and physicality to come in and finish things off, too. (She has eight goals and 22 assists in 67 appearances for the national team.) She can drop back when needed and doesn’t shy away from defensive duties.
“She’s turned into not just a fabulous player but an unbelievable professional,” Sermanni said in May, when New Zealand played the United States as part of the World Cup send-off series. “Probably – definitely one of the best players in the world. One of the most effective players in the world.”
Pugh was a phenom, drawing attention from Ellis as a teenager because of her speed, creativity and, of course, knack for scoring goals. Just 16, she was the youngest player in 11 years to make her debut for the national team, which she did in January 2016. Seven months later, she became the youngest U.S. player to score at the Olympics.
Though Pugh had enrolled at UCLA and taken classes in the spring semester, she, like Horan, realized she would benefit more from stepping outside her comfort zone. After weighing offers from Europe and talking extensively with her parents, coaches and Horan, Pugh turned pro and signed with the Washington Spirit.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Pugh said.
But the right one. In 52 appearances for the U.S., she has 15 goals and 15 assists.
Though an embarrassment of riches at forward means Pugh will come off the bench at the World Cup, Ellis relishes the thought of bringing her on against defenses exhausted from chasing Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe for 60-plus minutes. Horan, meanwhile, will be right behind, wreaking havoc in the midfield.
They are different, these roads Horan and Pugh chose to take. But they, and the U.S. women, are the better for them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.