HOUSTON (AP) — For a moment, Mallory Pugh‘s eyes widened.
The U.S. national team had just qualified for the Olympics, and the 17-year-old player now faced cameras and questions. But Pugh, still months away from college, seems an old hand in many ways when it comes to poise.
The Americans assured their spot for this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Games on Friday night with a 5-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. Pugh started and assisted on Tobin Heath‘s goal in the 12th minute.
“I think it’s a really cool and awesome opportunity,” Pugh said. “I mean, not everyone gets it. And I think making the most of it when it comes is really cool.”
She is the youngest in a youth movement and could become the second-youngest U.S. Olympic soccer player since 1904, according to sports-reference.com. She would be just younger than Cindy Parlow was at the first Olympics with women’s soccer in 1996.
The average age of the qualifying team is 25, down from the 29.5-year average of the team that won the World Cup in Canada last summer.
Eight of the players on the 20-player roster for this tournament had fewer than nine appearances with the senior national team. Other newcomers include Lindsey Horan, 21; Crystal Dunn, 23; and Emily Sonnett, 22.
Several veterans, including Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday, have retired from the team that beat Japan 5-2 last summer in Canada for the World Cup title. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are expecting and won’t be available for the Olympics. Megan Rapinoe is recovering from knee surgery.
Pugh first came to the attention of U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who also serves as U.S. Soccer’s development director, when she was 14. Pugh played on the under-17 and under-20 national teams, turning heads when she captained the team that won the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship last year, earning the Golden Boot award for most goals with seven.
She made her debut at the senior level in the team’s opening game of this year, scoring her first goal in a 5-0 win over Ireland in San Diego.
Pugh is the youngest player named to a U.S. qualifying roster. The Colorado native made two starts in the tournament, which wraps up Sunday when the Americans face Canada in the final. Canada earned the region’s other Olympic berth with a 3-1 victory over Costa Rica in the semifinals.
With her speed on the left flank, Pugh held her own Friday night. Ellis decided to sit Dunn, who had five goals in the Americans’ previous game, a 10-0 victory over Puerto Rico.
“I knew (Pugh) was ready, so it was looking more at what we wanted and what we wanted to see,” Ellis said. “I think part of it is, in a tournament like this, being able to utilize your depth. And we have depth in those positions.”
Carli Lloyd likes what she’ sees from Pugh.
“I think she’s got a lot of talent, she’s really fast, she’s got good pace, very smart on the ball. I think she’s got to keep grinding away, and be able to continue to keep that level for an entire game. But great tournament for her so far, and she’s got a lot of good years ahead of her.”
Pugh will continue to play for the U-20 national team – the World Cup for that level of soccer is in November. She will also keep fit for a possible spot on the final Olympic roster by training with a boys’ team back home in Colorado. Ellis can take only 18 players to Brazil.
And she’ll also get ready for her freshman year at UCLA in the fall.
“Mallory Pugh, being on the field, it was so cool,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said following the victory. “I was so proud for her to start. To be honest, she didn’t seem nervous. She just seemed excited and happy. It was good energy.”