Abby Who?

The best young soccer player in the US did the impossible last night: making a hat trick by the World Player of the Year seem, well, slightly uninteresting.

Retirements, injuries and a pregnancy having forced US Women's National team coach Jill Ellis to play someone other than a gently aging collection of jersey and t-shirt sales reps, 17 year old Mallory Pugh - two months removed from suiting up for The Mountain Vista High School Golden Eagles - was inserted onto the field in the 58th minute and went on to score the first of what will unquestionably end up being what is professionally estimated at "One Whole Hell of a Lot" more goals for the US.

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Lest you think this was some kind of fluke by a precocious kid, be advised that as a high school senior - no word on whether there's still time to rent yourself a gaudy powder blue suit and slide into her Senior Prom photo or whether some other guy has nailed that spot down already - Pugh has been the target of the biggest combined Tug-of-War and Chicken game in American women's soccer since, well, maybe ever.

A few weeks ago, well-sourced media reports and/or wild internet gossip - it's getting harder and harder to tell the difference these days - had it that Pugh was headed for the Portland Thorns of the NWSL, who traded the 3rd pick in the draft for the #1 allocation spot in anticipation of grabbing up the girl who led the U17's in scoring, and will captain the U20's in their World Cup this year despite being possibly the youngest player on the team.

But on Wednesday, Pugh's father Horace announced that his daughter, who nominally plays for Real Colorado, would be enrolling at UCLA come next Fall instead of becoming the very first high-school-to-pros woman in US soccer history.

 

Whether the Thorns de Portland got bamboozled a bit, or took a worthwhile gamble that didn't pan out is more or less a moot point. If they did try to pull something like this off, bravo to them. They're an outfit that, on both sides of the gender divide, have demonstrated a willingness to take chances that a lot of their brethren (and sistren, if that's a word) could well emulate occasionally in the button-down-and-play-it-safe world of American professional soccer.

It's also not worth arguing about whether the delightfully cold blooded Ms. Pugh whose textbook cashing of the header against Ireland is typical of her clinical, heady approach, is the second coming of Mia Hamm or even the distaff Pele made flesh.

But like the smooth, stylish Lindsay Horan, another former American high school forward from Colorado, who turned down a full ride at storied North Carolina to sign with Paris St. Germain where she grabbed a starting spot, began scoring goals by the truckload and featured in the UEFA Womens Champions League (all of which would send Juergen Klinsmann into paroxysms of glee had she been born with slightly different basic equipment), US Coach Jill Ellis hasn't been able to find much use for her until now.

Indeed, Ellis has been quoted as saying that Horan is actually at a disadvantage playing in Europe; according to the coach, she'd have been better off playing in the NWSL, a point which she's taken to heart; having signed with the Thorns, she was poised to be Pugh's teammate this year until UCLA won whatever battle did or didn't occur.

Still, whether or not Pugh makes everyone forget Abby Wambach in a few years, it's worth nothing that last night's game, played without the Legends of the Game, drew a San Diego record crowd of over 23,000 shrieking fans.

Which is more than the 19,000 they drew for the China game in Arizona, the 10,000 in San Antonio (T&T) and within a few dozen fans of out drawing the much-ballyhooed USWNT vs. Brazil match in Seattle in October.

US Soccer assures us that the reason they have to drag out these absurd Victory Tour dog and pony shows for months and months after they stop serving any useful purpose is that they need the big-name draws to sell tickets to make more money to support the US Women.

So this fall the fans dutifully paid, dutifully bought t shirts and dutifully cheered as Abby wandered aimlessly around the field waiting for someone to launch a nice ball to her head someplace where she wouldn't have to run for it and a half dozen of her sisters got to pocket nice checks in the bargain.

Meanwhile, exciting young stars like Pugh, Horan, the exciting Crystal "Last Player Left off the World Cup Roster" Dunn, Emily Sonnett (the first player picked in last week's NWSL draft, a lock down defender out of Virginia), Rose Lavelle (MVP of the CONCACAF Women's U20 Championships), the wonderful Danielle Colaprico (NWSL Rookie of the Year who dishes out assists like a politician dishing out lies) and others get left waiting in the lobby.

Leaving aside the question of getting these women some top level experience leading into the Olympics and the next tournament cycle, wouldn't good sports marketing dictate that rather than giving your outgoing players a couple victory laps, you use the opportunity to introduce your new kids to the fans, let them see how startlingly talented they truly are, maybe even draw some new fans to NWSL games,where they're desperately needed?

Jill Ellis was hired specifically to replace a coach who was trying to bring these new players into the fold. Sunil Gulati and the powers at SoccerHouse decided our best shot at the World Cup was to keep sending out the retreads to play unimaginative, punch-you-in-the-throat soccer.

OK fine, we won. Who knows, maybe they were right. Judgement call and all that.

But now it's time to look to the future. Let's see what these kids can do. If we lose a couple games we might otherwise have won while they get the experience they'll need, fine. We're not imbeciles, we understand.

But when you hear Ellis say, as she did just last week, that there are at most "three spots" open on the US Olympic roster, you have to wonder whose future she's really looking out for.