USWNT talents Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith continue to perform as NWSL schedule improves

The Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns FC settled on a 2-2 draw on Saturday to close out their first month of the regular season in NWSL, as Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith continue their impressive start. Both scored for their respective teams with Rachel Hill grabbing Chicago’s other goal and Hina Sugita Portland’s other goal. The two teams faced each other for the first time this season, ahead of a tough schedule, as they now prepare to play multiple games over the next two weeks.

Here are takeaways from the competition:

Early goals set the tone

Both teams pretended to have similar styles as they each rolled out in three-back formations. The familiar tactics led to some extra lanes and space on the wings for the fullbacks to try and exploit, which is exactly what they did.

Portland kept it tight on the left, but often went down the right flank.

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Each team scored a goal in the opening ten minutes of the game as Pugh was played into space for a chance to go one-on-one, while the Thorns took advantage of a corner kick that extended the Red Stars defense for the early equalizer. † A go-ahead goal in the 20th minute from Hill wasn’t enough as the Thorns swallowed another corner and the failed attempt to clear led to a good finish by Smith in the penalty area.

At a post-game conference, Smith disregarded the idea that similar tactical styles were the cause of a tie and believes the team can improve forward.

“L think of the formation, we might have played the same as Chicago. I don’t think that played a big part in the result. I think regardless [with] formations, it’s a football match and you go out to [see] who can put away more chances and who can stop more chances,” she said.

Despite the draw, Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson believes the familiar styles are not the main cause of a draw and the club can grow out of a match that presented similar challenges.

“I think we have to recognize that we have come back twice. There is a lot we have to learn from and continue to grow from,” Wilkinson said after the game.

“I thought we were in it. We kept fighting. We never gave up on each other and came back twice to get a point on the road. As a coach I have to be happy about that.”

Pugh and Smith Continue Impressive Game in NWSL

Pugh and Smith’s player profiles have risen for both club and country. The two forwards have been a staple in recent US national team camps and international friendlies. For the club, there is an argument that the two forwards are the main producers on the offensive and without them their responsive teams could have very different opening months than the regular season.

Smith currently leads the Thorns in total shots (20), shots on target (10) and total goals scored (3) after a month of regular season action with the team. It took a specific moment against the flow of the game for her to reach the goal against Chicago, but her action firing in the final third kind of foreshadowed her eventual breakout.

Smith has half her teams goals five games into the season.

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“Of course it’s great to score a goal, especially when we really needed one,” Smith said after the game of her equalizing goal.

“I think it’s an away game against a good team, getting away with a draw.” [is] Good I think. However, we are not completely satisfied. We always want to get three points and we will go back to watch this game and figure out what we need to work on to win the next game.”

Red Stars felt Pugh’s absence after the USWNT striker exited the Challenge Cup due to a concussion he sustained while a group match remained. Pugh averaged one goal per game for Chicago, and the Red Stars started their regular season without their star striker. The club welcomed their return last week after a massive second half performance with Pugh coming in at halftime, scoring two goals and an assist to make it 4-2 at the Orlando Pride.

Against the Thorns, she opened the scoring in the fifth minute, where she took about nine seconds to score after receiving the ball. Red Stars defender Kayla Sharples intercepted the ball and found Ava Cook, who headed Pugh into space. Pugh then took advantage of the wide areas of the wing to beat her defender and goalkeeper for the opening goal.

Pugh’s presence on the field is constant for opposing coaches, and for coach Wilkinson, the game’s transition is something the team will work on for future games.

“We know this is a transitional competition. We know that as a club, and it’s something we talk about as a team. We want to build, we want to play, but we can’t be exposed to quick transitions against very strong powerful oppositions.” said Wilkinson. “You know, Mal Pugh, we know about her. We were prepared for her, but clearly a very fast player, and… [she] got that goal early in the first, so we can’t let that happen.”

Pugh has now scored three goals in her first two games of the season, as she continues to build up her minutes as she returns from injury. The attacker was in good spirits during the post-game and talked about the different challenges between her first two games this season.

“Well, I’m feeling pretty good. So that’s encouraging. But yeah, I think the game was a bit different from Orlando,” she said. “I feel in Orlando, I was able to come in and impress because it was in the second half and there was a lot of space. So I feel like that game was one I could get into. Back then this one was just fun to like a little [get a] starting over, and being able to play a little bit again and get minutes under me. So hopefully I can just keep building.”

What’s next for Chicago and Portland

The Red Stars and the Thorns are just two of the many clubs that have changed tactically this year as we see more teams deploying three at the back this year. For forwards like Smith and Pugh, the opportunities for more one-on-one fights will present themselves. If they continue to lead their respective forwards, it will continue to lead even more calls at the national team level, where the duo are quickly cementing their place.

Chicago will face the Washington Spirit on Wednesday, June 1, at 7:30 PM ET. Portland hosts Angel City on Friday, June 3 at 10:30 p.m. ET. You can watch both matches on Paramount+.

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