In their fourth and final match of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Chicago Red Stars put on without doubt their best offensive display to date but still came out on the losing side. They fell 3-2 in Tacoma to OL Reign, but the loss was lightened by the spark provided by Mallory Pugh.
Pugh started her second consecutive game and began with incredible confidence that immediately put OL Reign on the defensive. Her efforts were rewarded when, in the 38th minute, she dribbled her way past three defenders before a left footed shot found the bottom corner for her first Red Stars goal.
“I try to go out in every game and have fun,” Pugh said of her mindset entering the game. “It’s maybe cliché or basic, but as silly as that sounds when I’m able to have that mindset I feel is when I’m at my best.”
Pugh played 66 minutes on Tuesday after playing about half an hour against Kansas City in the previous match. Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said afterward that Pugh’s continued progression, not necessarily the soccer she produces, is the priority for now.
“The most important thing with Mal is to get Mal fit and healthy and confident in her body,” Dames said of Pugh’s ongoing injury recovery. “You’ve seen glimpses of what she’s capable of but the full package is special.”
It was also the second game of 2021 for USWNT regulars Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher since their return from national team camp. All three started both of the final two Challenge Cup games, a valuable opportunity to get back working with their club teammates after getting dropped into the starting lineup last week.
“I think it’s really important we got these games in because NWSL games are different than any other type of game,” said Davidson. “Hopefully we will be in and out of stuff with the national team and this team so we want to be able to come in and contribute as best as possible when we are here.”
The Challenge Cup presented the chance for the Red Stars to prepare for what’s sure to be a busy 2021 with the Olympics in July and regular season scheduled now announced.
Dames said the squad will now get a break before reconvening to prepare for a tough opening test: a Sunday night showdown in Portland with the Thorns on May 16th.