UPDATE: (01/20/2016) It appears that Mallory Pugh is not going straight to the pros from high school. It was reported today That Pugh has decided not to go pro and will attend UCLA as she had originally intended instead. I think this is a very good thing, but I don’t think it should end the debate on players going pro straight from high school. All of my original concerns are still in play, just on hold until USSF or NWSL finds their next exceptional teenager. Personally, I would like to see the league address a minimum age requirement or at the very least put some sort of mechanism in place to assure that no undue influence is exerted on a teenage player and that they are afforded some way to attend college if they wish during/after playing. Maybe that could be as simple as having a portion of the player’s salary going directly into a college trust fund. As I said, I’m happy Pugh will attend college first, what do you think? Let me know in the comments.
Today, January 15, 2016, was the NWSL College Draft. Over 145 players declared their eligibility and desire to be drafted by an NWSL team (the final tally was more than the published 145 because NWSL said there was an updated list, although fans weren’t privileged to it). Not among those players was forward Lindsay Horan, formerly of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and currently of Portland Thorns (PTFC). Horan had chosen in 2012 to forego playing in college in the US and instead accepted a contract with French professional side, PSG. This was an unprecedented move for an American female soccer player and raised more than a few eyebrows and questions about what it meant for American women’s soccer. Horan was of exceptional ability for a player of her age and experience and had always set her sights on playing in Europe. The top French side, Olympic Lyon had expressed an interest in her while she was still in high school, but her family decided it was best for her to finish first. When she did finish, Lyon didn’t have room for her on their already stacked roster and a deal was struck with PSG instead. The deal was for a reported six-figures over the three years and had some provision for her to continue her college while playing in France. Horan headed to France where she played well for PSG, very well in fact, and also represented the USA on the U20 team. Through talks and negotiations none of us lay people will ever be privy to, Horan decided to return to the US. Some say it was so she could meet “criteria” for being selected to the USWNT, some say it was because it was just time. Some say it was back door negotiations between US Soccer, NWSL and PTFC to get her to marquee in Portland. There is probably some bit of truth in all the scenarios, but like I said, we will probably never know how much. The damage to the US college system that produces 99.9% of all US pro players was minuscule, if measurable at all. Three years went by and not another player bypassed the college ranks to go pro, in the US or abroad. Maybe until today.
You can sing the praises of any of the selected draftees from today, but I think it’s safe to say that none are in a position to contribute to an NWSL team at the level Horan can the day she steps onto the pitch for the first time in Portland colors. She is that good, and they are not. That alone makes her leaving for a pro contract in France not seem so important. The players she was peers with in 2012 are not as good as she was then and they aren’t as good now. And in my opinion, going pro, in France or anywhere else wouldn’t have changed that significantly. Which brings me to the news about another player forgoing college.
It has been reported by Soccerwire.com and repeated across twitter that 17 year old Mallory Pugh, of Mountain Vista high school, youth club side Real Colorado, US U20’s and now training with the full USWNT, will be signed by US Soccer and “allocated” to PTFC. This is a little hazy because NWSL changed their allocation rules significantly just prior to the 2016 College Draft. I say hazy because to me it’s not clear that a player has to actually be signed by a team or US Soccer to be listed as a USI. They just have to have the potential to be subsidized at some point in the future. For the sake of argument though, we’ll go with her being signed. If she is indeed signed and receives a salary she will give up her NCAA eligibility and won’t be able to play at college level if her pro career doesn’t pan out for any reason. (NCAA have made exceptions, but I can’t think this choice would qualify). She would be the first female soccer player to forego college to turn pro in a domestic soccer league and folks, I think that sets a very, very bad precedent, for US Soccer, the NWSL, the NCAA and women’s development in general.
As recently as July of 2015 Pugh was quoted as saying she just hoped to do well at UCLA, her declared college. That was just 6 months ago, not much time for a drastic shift in focus that will affect the rest of your soccer career and by extension, life. It makes me wonder, who influenced her thinking in those 6 months..and how..and why. While very poised and soccer savvy she is still just shy of 18 and probably dependent on advice and guidance from people she trusts and respects. Who is speaking to those people? And what can they have said to convince those trusted and respected sources that foregoing her education in search of glory on the soccer field is the way to go?
Nothing happens in a vacuum and I’m sure this is no different so I’m going to try to see if I can figure out how each of the entities involved benefits, or doesn’t, from Pugh turning pro now.
US Soccer and the USWNT
– Is Pugh a dual national and is threatening to play for another country? Not as far as anything I can find. She’s born and bred US of A and not going anywhere.
-Will not signing Pugh to a NT contract in any way affect her ability to play for the full NT now or in the future? No. The NT has a history of college players playing with the full NT.
-Will Pugh refuse to play for the full NT if asked if she isn’t signed to a contract? I would highly doubt that, and if that was the case I’d be very disappointed if US Soccer let themselves be manipulated by a player that way.
-Is there any offer on the table from any international team trying to get Pugh to play outside the US? Not than anyone has mentioned or even intimated.
-Is there any reason, at all, that US Soccer should feel compelled to sign Pugh? No.
– Does Pugh foregoing college and playing in Portland (or anywhere) benefit NWSL? Pugh isn’t a household word, in NT play or elsewhere, so the benefit of having her give up her eligibility to play in NWSL is of no real tangible benefit, monetarily or prestige-wise.
-Does NWSL suffer if Pugh foregoes college to play internationally? Possibly. It could be seen by domestic players that they are more highly valued if they develop overseas rather than through the current college system. I think sentiment is already trending that way as more players pursue playing overseas as a means to develop after college. That is a perception problem NWSL could manage without allowing this maneuver.
-Is there any reason NWSL should not allow Pugh to be signed by a team without going through the current development path? Where do I start? Allowing this signing by Portland (or any team) sends a very wrong message. It sends a message that education is not valued. It sends a message that this is an acceptable path to the pros for any player who is valued by the NT and can persuade a team to sign them. This sends a message that a player in such a situation can dictate where they go, without benefit of proving themselves at a high level. This sends a message that if you have the right team pedigree you can get whatever you want. I do not believe that if Pugh wanted to go to Portland, but NWSL said no this deal would happen. This sends a message that the NWSL will bend over backwards to kiss their own ass, something no league wants to be known for. This sends a message that an unproven player is valued more than any other player in the league just because someone sees potential in them. This sends a message that NWSL doesn’t care about the other 160 odd players they employ.
-Does NCAA benefit from Pugh foregoing eligibility to play professionally in NWSL? No. There is no benefit to NCAA, none. In fact this harms the NCAA pathway to the pros in several ways. Up until today, the NCAA was the way to the pros. Players from all over the world have played for college teams in the US on their way to developing into a pro. Players have realized that an education is just as important as any skill they may acquire on the playing field when preparing for life. Title IX afforded players better conditions and more scholarships to be able to pursue that path to the pros. Now, players may seek to circumvent that path diluting the college product. With the advent of a USSF supported women’s academy, this could be a double blow to the college programs.
Women’s Development in General
-Does Pugh going directly from high school/youth club-foregoing college-to pro harm women’s development in the US? It certainly could. Up until today the overwhelming majority of players who enter the domestic pro ranks ( and more than a few international pro ranks) pass through the college system. They play for their high school teams and most also play for some level of club side, getting their education and keeping up their grades in order to be selected by the best college programs, where they will develop their soccer skills but also gain a world class education. Most women’s college programs have a very high graduation rate, meaning these players are equipped for more than playing soccer once they graduate. College allows them the time to grow. They gain size, emotional maturity and social skills. Their development is not only on the field.
-Does Pugh going directly from high school/youth club-foregoing college-to pro help women’s development in the US? No. Development prior to the pro ranks doesn’t happen if there is no vehicle between high school and the pros for it to take place. USSF wanting to create a women’s academy, similar to the men’s academy might be a place for it to happen for a select few, but it’s not a reality yet. Even if it comes to fruition, if it is modeled after the men’s academy the results and opinions about its effectiveness in developing players is mixed. Removing a viable path to the pros, or allowing it to be circumvented does nothing to help development of women players.
Mallory Pugh is a special talent and not one that comes along every day, but the precedent being set by US Soccer and in turn by the NWSL can pave the way for some nefarious dealings in the future. Having a path for future subsidized players to enter the league and be more evenly distributed upon entry is a good thing. Allowing a player to bypass the development system is not. Some may argue that it will only be a select few who are as gifted as Horan and Pugh who will bypass the system, but that number could easily grow depending on who is in charge of the USWNT and its player pool and if a percentage of salary is allowed to be paid instead of the whole salary as is now the case. The scenario could easily be envisioned where a player foregoes college, is signed by US Soccer and is subsidized to the league and she doesn’t play up to potential and loses her subsidy the following year, or the year after. In this case she would have forfeited her NCAA eligibility and not made the pros..and now what? Do we make new roster rules or contract rules or player pool rules to cover this? And where does that new rule making stop? Does she make enough in that year or two years to pay for a 1st class education? Not in today’s world she doesn’t. Some of you may not put a high price on education, or maybe you just think that players beware. Maybe you think this is all no ones business but the player and the league, but you’d be wrong. Teams and leagues are only as accountable as they think we will make them be. If we let them think this is OK going forward, we will be to blame for that player who hangs her future on a subsidy and a contract and ends up with neither when things don’t work in her favor.
Worrying about what happens to players in regard to how they are treated on the business side is no different than caring what happens to them on the field. Existing players need better salaries and conditions before the league needs to find a way to get another subsidized player on their roster. Existing non-subsidized players at least need to be afforded the respect of not watching player after player be given preferential treatment in where they play or if and where they’re traded. Yes, it’s a business, but one made up of people, people who give everything to pursue a dream and just ask for fairness and consideration in return.
Women’s soccer in the US needs a lot of things to make it better, bypassing the college system to turn pro isn’t one of them.
As always, let me hear your side in the comments..