2021 proved to be a successful year for the Chicago Red Stars, as they sealed a place in the NWSL playoffs and finished as runners-up in the Championship (the name given to the playoff final), losing out to first-time winners Washington Spirit. What makes this achievement even more notable is the fact that their roster doesn’t contain many star names, with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, right-back Casey Krueger and centre-back Tierna Davidson the only members of the squad to have featured for the USA at the recent Tokyo Olympics. However, one player who has really made a name for herself at SeatGeek Stadium this season is Mallory Pugh, a 23-year-old forward who was traded to Chicago at the end of 2020 and has since become one of their most important players.
In this tactical analysis, we will look in closer detail at Pugh’s game, analysing her positioning, awareness, how she creates options for teammates, and her roles with the USWNT, having made her international debut back in 2016. In doing so, the scout report will seek to give a clearer picture of how she fits into both teams’ tactics, and why she is a player to look out for in 2022.
The first thing to look at is how Mallory Pugh provides her team with options around the field. This is a particularly important quality to have as a forward, because players rely on them to act as targets in the box, ensuring that they can create chances from different areas of the pitch.
As this image shows, Pugh is the type of forward who gets herself into the box at every opportunity, having taken up a position just in front of the Orlando Pride defenders here. Orlando, previously managed by now-Manchester United Women boss Marc Skinner, tended to get one full-back forward and leave one back, but usually pulled both back to form a front four once the ball got close to the goal area. However, they haven’t been quick enough in blocking off the spaces here, leaving a gap open for Pugh to move into, as the black arrow indicates. One of the Chicago forward’s key qualities is sharp movement in small spaces, and it is often the case that she will make darting runs here and there to throw defenders off. In this case, she punishes Orlando’s defensive error and gets onto the end of the ball, meaning Chicago have turned a potentially tricky situation into a shot at goal.
There are two things to take from this. Firstly, Pugh loves being in congested areas of the pitch, with her quick movement a key factor in Chicago breaking opposing defences down so often last season. Secondly, she times her runs well when she sees spaces, ensuring that opponents have as little time as possible to react and prevent Chicago from getting shots away at goal. What she can now improve on is her ability to turn these opportunities into goals, as she only found the net 0.21 times per game last season, despite having an expected goals (xG) value of 0.32, and scored just five times in total. Not having higher productivity came down to her composure at times, as there were a few situations where she rushed her efforts when in good positions, and this is highlighted by her only getting 40% of her shots on target. Therefore, this is something she can improve on ahead of the 2022 campaign.
This theme of Pugh running into spaces almost unnoticed is continued here. Portland Thorns were one of the top teams in the NWSL last season, coached by Mark Parsons, who replaced England manager Sarina Wiegman as Netherlands women’s manager earlier in 2021. However, they and their closest competitors, OL Reign, both dropped off in form as the campaign drew to a close. Defensive spaces opened up as a result and players like Pugh were able to get behind them, as is shown in this image.
This is where Pugh is clever because she has given her team an option early, rather than being sucked into where the ball is. As a result, when her team turn and look to make the pass, she is there to receive it in space, meaning there is no delay and Chicago can attack with more speed. This is made easier by the fact that Portland’s players are all focused on the ball, and not on where Pugh is moving to. Therefore, we can see how Pugh was a central player in Chicago’s attacking play last season.
Pugh also uses her ability to read the game when Chicago are moving from defence to attack. She tends to stay further out when opponents have corners, with the advantage being that when Chicago win possession, she can make a run early and help to lead the counter-attack. By getting ahead of the ball early, she ensures that Chicago can attack at speed and continually play forwards, meaning there is less chance of them playing sideways passes, which would slow them down and take away their element of surprise. Orlando occasionally lacked defensive organisation last season, leading to them conceding 32 goals (the third-most in the NWSL, only four less than bottom side Kansas City), so Pugh was key in opening these teams up and giving Chicago options in transitional play; another reason that they finished so well in 2021.
Mallory Pugh’s ability to create options largely comes through her positioning around the field, and this is where we will now turn our attention in this analysis.
Here, Houston Dash have come up the pitch and tried to close the ball down as a team. However, in doing so, they have opened up the space behind them, which is where Pugh now positions herself. By doing so, she gives her team a way of moving the ball out of the congested midfield zone and into an area where they can create a goalscoring opportunity. We mentioned in the previous section that Pugh moves late and makes it harder for defenders to stay with her, and it is a common sight in Chicago’s games to see her getting into their blind spots. In this situation, she holds her position to ensure she stays onside but also makes sure that Chicago have the advantage here, as the defenders will be unable to turn and run back in time once the ball is played over the top to her, giving them a better chance of scoring.
However, Pugh doesn’t just stay in one fixed position during matches and instead tends to drift around and be where her teammates need her. In most games, she has operated as the left-sided attacker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which Chicago used 73% of the time last season, whilst Rachel Hill played on the right side, Valentina DiBernardo operated as the attacking midfielder, and Kealia Watt was the centre forward. These four players worked well as an attacking unit because they were given the freedom to cut inside and overload the central areas, creating problems for opposing defences.
This style of play allowed Pugh to take on opposing defenders in 1-v-1 duels, as is shown here against Houston, with her strength in this part of the game partly the reason why she likes to be in tight spaces on the pitch. Forwards need to be good at beating defenders, and this is something Pugh excels at, having won 47.8% of her offensive duels last season. Again, she times her movements well in these situations, making it harder for the defender competing with her to track back at the same speed. However, her crossing accuracy last season was only 21.2%, which again comes down to her composure with the final pass or cross into the box, which we have already mentioned is something she needs to work on.
Pugh’s good positioning during games is not only about her finding areas where she can receive the ball and shoot at goal. As this image shows, she is also capable of opening up passes to teammates by affecting the opponents’ focus. Here, she has come towards the ball, getting between four Houston players and preventing them from moving towards the ball or the other Chicago attackers. As a result, the pass towards those players is opened up, and there is less chance of it being intercepted on the way.
Therefore, whilst not directly involved in the play this time, Pugh has still played a key role in Chicago’s attack through her positioning, because the defenders now have to mark her due to the individual threat she poses, meaning that they can’t get across and block the pass.
A lot of what we have seen so far in this scout report revolves around Mallory Pugh’s good movement around the pitch, but the only reason that she plays the game so well is that she is constantly aware of what is going on around her, and this is another reason why her presence is a huge positive for Chicago Red Stars.
This image shows how Racing Louisville have come to close down the ball, but the defender doing so has been caught in two minds, not getting tight enough, yet not staying far enough back to prevent the space from opening up behind them. Pugh sees this and runs into the gap, as the black arrow shows, and this small movement and demonstration of spatial awareness allow Chicago to play the ball behind Louisville and run at their goal. Louisville struggled to put together a run of form last season, finishing second bottom of the NWSL, despite making several high-profile signings such as England striker Ebony Salmon, formerly of Bristol City Women, and ex-Manchester City Women and Liverpool Women defender Gemma Bonner. It was moments like this that contributed to their inconsistency. However, even though the pass behind had been opened up, it wasn’t a problem until Pugh made the run behind, which shows how her awareness is key to Chicago breaking their opponents down and exposing their weaknesses.
No player is perfect though, and Pugh certainly has her weaknesses. What she does well is to turn moments of poor quality into promising situations, with this image showing a prime example of that. The pass into her was a little hard, meaning that her first touch let her down and the ball initially went loose. However, she recovers well and knows that she won’t be able to do anything with the ball herself, so instead looks around for the next best option. In this case, left-back Arin Wright is running up the field, so Pugh plays a perfectly-weighted forward pass for her to run onto, leading to Wright narrowly missing the target from her subsequent effort on goal.
Bringing teammates into the game in this way is a quality that most forwards need to be good at, as it allows their team to overload opposing goal areas and prevent individual players from becoming isolated, and this situation demonstrates how this is another part of the game in which Pugh thrives. As a result, she finished last season with an average of 0.16 assists per game, from an expected assists (xA) value of 0.21, setting up four goals in total, whilst her passing accuracy was an impressive 69.4%. Therefore, it is evident that setting up teammates in the final third is another of her key qualities which have helped Chicago, although, like with most of the points made in this scout report, there is still room for her to become even better at it in 2022.
Most of what we have analysed so far has come when Chicago have the ball. However, Pugh’s awareness is just as good when her team are out of possession, as we see in this image. OL Reign have advanced up the field, but have lost the ball whilst trying to find a way through the Chicago defenders. Pugh anticipates the poor touch and runs in to win possession, looking to launch a counter-attack whilst OL are on the wrong foot. OL, who are based in Seattle, were out of form at the end of the season, but still had plenty of threat in the final third, with the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Dzsenifer Marozsan, Eugenie Le Sommer, Jess Fishlock and Rose Lavelle all part of their attack during the 2021 season. Therefore, disrupting them as often as possible was critical, and although OL eventually won this match, Pugh’s awareness was important for Chicago’s efforts to keep them at bay for as long as possible.
Roles with the USWNT
So far, we have focused on Mallory Pugh’s roles for Chicago Red Stars, but she has also been an important part of the USWNT in recent seasons. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski must begin to find alternatives to his star forward unit of Rapinoe, North Carolina Courage’s Lynn Williams, former Manchester United strikers Christen Press and Tobin Heath (the latter of whom now plays for Arsenal Women), Orlando’s Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd (who recently retired at the age of 39), and Pugh is very much one member of the next generation he is looking at.
The USWNT have tended to prefer a 4-3-3 formation in 2021, deploying it in 84% of their games, so Pugh will likely be given the job of breaking through defences and getting into the spaces behind; something that we already know she is good at. In this image, she and Portland striker Sophia Smith have gotten between the South Korea defensive line and have given Carli Lloyd the option of passing the ball forward. Had Pugh and Smith not been there, Lloyd would have had to have found a more lengthy way around, making it harder for the USA to maintain their attacking momentum.
This image shows another example of Pugh running behind the South Korean defenders, but in a different situation to the previous one. This time, the ball is not being played through the thirds, with ex-Manchester City defender Abby Dahlkemper this time opting to play an aerial pass up the field and into the space behind Pugh. The forward’s positioning gives the USA options here, meaning that they can alter their playing style depending on who they are facing, which will be important as they look to regain some pride after a disappointing Olympic campaign last summer. Again, Pugh is the furthest-forward player here, showing how she is always on the front foot and knows what Dahlkemper is looking to do. This demonstrates her anticipation and awareness, which are two qualities we have explored extensively in this analysis.
She will not only be expected to play as a centre forward though, with this image showing how she is behind the main attacking line and is instead attempting to pass into a teammate ahead of her. In this situation, she demonstrates her ability to play as a creative midfielder, linking up with teammates to open up routes through the defence. She plays several one-touch passes into the box here, receiving the ball back each time, and this shows how she is comfortable playing in different roles than normal. Lyon Feminin star Catarina Macario would ordinarily be given this role, but it is important to have variation in the team, making them less predictable, and Pugh undoubtedly brings that through her range of qualities around the pitch.
In conclusion, there is no doubting that Mallory Pugh had a great season in 2021 and was one of the standout players in the NWSL, helping Chicago Red Stars to a seemingly unlikely NWSL Championship fight. This tactical analysis has examined several different aspects of her game, looking at why Chicago came to rely on her so much over the last year, and it is clear that her many in-game qualities have been a key factor in their good form. For the USWNT, there is no doubting that she is one member of the next generation of talented forwards they can rely on and will have no problem taking over once the current crop have decided to call it a day.