Mallory Pugh Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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A flood of memories rushed through Andi Sullivan’s head last spring as she pulled into the parking lot at the Maryland SoccerPlex with two of her Washington Spirit teammates, Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle. Parents tailgated in the parking lot, grills by their sides, and young girls in matching soccer jerseys mingled with their teammates. 

“Oh my gosh, that used to be me,” Sullivan remembers thinking. She grew up in northern Virginia and attended games to watch some of the biggest names in women’s soccer play for the local team. 

Now she sat in the car as one of those players. So did Pugh and Lavelle. Many of the girls in the parking lot that day had come to see them. 

“That was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had as a pro, because I hope some of them aspire to do what I’m doing, and they will, because I know they can,” says Sullivan.

A year later, Sullivan still appreciates going to home Spirit matches with her two teammates. All three have taken different paths to becoming professional soccer players, but each player is a central figure in rebuilding a Spirit franchise coming off a disastrous 2-17-5 season last year. Their faces adorn the poster given out by the team, and they have each played on the U.S. women’s national team that is gearing up for the World Cup in France this summer. 

They’re also roommates.

“It’s been super fun,” Lavelle says of their living situation. “Everyone convinced us that we were going to hate each other, but honestly I love them even more.”

***

The temperature on the pitch at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds is in the low 50s, but it feels far colder. Players are wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants as they warm up. 

Lavelle, who is recovering from an injury, walks gingerly onto the field. She has just finished a training session on a stationary bike, and the rest of her team is beginning practice. It’s the Thursday before the Spirit’s April 13 season opener and the team is eager to show off its new look.

Thirteen of the Spirit’s 25 players are either new to the team this year or late-season call-ups in 2018. Local tech executive Steve Baldwin bought a majority stake from Bill Lynch, who is still involved with the franchise as a minority owner, and in January, Baldwin hired Larry Best as the club’s first chief executive. 

The team has expanded its full-time coaching staff and invested in amenities for its players, including a lounge and new locker room. There’s also a new head coach, Richie Burke, a former professional soccer player from Liverpool and a longtime D.C.-area resident.

“It’s just kind of a breath of fresh air,” says Tori Huster, the longest-tenured player on the team. The Spirit selected her in the 2013 National Women’s Soccer League Supplemental Draft. “There have been a lot of changes and new faces, it’s been really refreshing. I think the change in coaching staff and just everyone’s mentality and the atmosphere that has surrounded us through preseason has been really great.”

On this chilly Thursday morning with the media watching, Pugh is clearly the star. Camera lenses follow her every move during drills, and it doesn’t take long for the 20-year-old from Colorado to amaze the crowd. Standing nearly 20 yards from the goal, Pugh takes a pass and strikes the ball with her left foot, sending it into the far right corner of the back of the net.

“Hey, save some for the weekend!” Burke shouts from the middle of the field, breaking into a grin.

The Spirit acquired Pugh in May 2017 as part of the NWSL distribution process after Pugh decided to forgo her college career at UCLA to turn pro. When she joined the team, Pugh, who has endorsement deals from Nike and Gatorade, lived on her own. Sullivan, a 23-year-old former national champion at Stanford University, wouldn’t arrive until a year later after being picked first overall in the 2018 NWSL College Draft. The former U.S. women’s national under-20 teammates decided to move in together. 

Before they could, the Boston Breakers folded their franchise and the Spirit selected Lavelle, 23, in the NWSL Dispersal Draft. The three friends already knew what they wanted to do.

“It wasn’t a question, it was like, we’re living together right?” Sullivan recalls. “It’s been great. We haven’t had any issues, which is hilarious.”

***

The U.S. national team played in a friendly match against Russia on April 4, 2017, in Houston. Lavelle remembers that game in vivid detail. That’s when she scored her first international goal. Pugh made the assist.

“Mal just played this great ball to the left side and Russia’s whole defense was kind of shifted to the right side,” Lavelle recalls, “so I basically had a breakaway and I was like, ‘I gotta put this away.’ It was pretty open and it was a great ball by Mal.”

Pugh adds, “I was so excited for her. I remember there were pictures of us. We were just so excited. Biggest smiles.” 

In the video clip of the play, Pugh immediately jumps into Lavelle’s arms to celebrate. “Rose Lavelle is one of the future!” the commentator intones. 

“I think that we just connect really well on the field, and we just like to play off each other,” Lavelle says of her and Pugh. “It’s like a partnership, it’s not like one person is more dominant over the other. I think when I play with Mal, it’s so fluid and so fun. She’s going to do great things and I’m going to be able to play off of it, and then I try to do something and I know she’s going to play off of that. It’s a fun relationship to have on the field.”

***

Lavelle waited anxiously for her roommates to get home on a recent Sunday afternoon, writing in a tweet that she jumped up “anytime I hear any sound that could potentially be them and now I know how dogs feel and it’s heartbreaking knowledge to have.”

The three typically retreat to their rooms during the day, but will eat dinner together. It brings levity to the grind of being a professional athlete. 

“The cool thing about Mal and Rose is that they make everything fun and interesting even if we’re laying around and doing nothing,” Sullivan says. “It’s great to be able to have people you can talk to about [soccer] but it’s also great to have people you can just go watch a movie with or make dinner or anything like that. They’re tremendous people and friends, so I feel lucky to get to live with them.”

And when they get together, who cooks? “Mal’s the best. Rose can’t cook at all,” Sullivan laughs. “It goes Mal, me, Rose.”

Soon the three friends will head off to the U.S. training camp in early May ahead of the World Cup tournament that runs June 7 to July 7. The NWSL will take a break between June 3 and 14 during the World Cup group stage. On Saturday, April 27, the team, which won its opener 2-0 over Sky Blue FC, will host a send-off to the players at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

Pugh and Lavelle are near locks for the roster. Sullivan is contending for a spot. “If the U.S. do not take her to the World Cup with them, more fool on them,” says Burke, the Spirit coach. No one would need to worry about their chemistry.