On June 11, Arizona midfielder Kelcey Cavarra and some of her former Real Colorado teammates gathered at a restaurant patio in downtown Denver to watch the United States Women’s National Team take on Thailand in its World Cup opener.
Like other girls who grew up on the soccer field, Cavarra tunes in to the Women’s World Cup every four years, eager to see her favorite players perform on the big stage.
The 2019 World Cup takes that sentiment to a whole new level.
One of Cavarra’s best friends and longtime club teammates, Mallory Pugh, stars for the USWNT and made her first-ever World Cup appearance—and scored her first World Cup goal—when the Americans drubbed Thailand, 13-0.
Five days later, Pugh made her first World Cup start against Chile.
“It’s honestly just insane,” Cavarra said by phone from Littleton, Colorado. “I always grew up watching girls’ soccer probably more than guys just because it was always a dream of mine (to play at that level). So it’s so cool to see Mal up there. I’m probably totally biased, but I think she should play a ton more, and it gives me more incentive to watch her because I get to see my friend succeed like that.”
A senior, Cavarra is a month and a half older than Pugh, but says she looks up to the 21-year-old striker. Not just because of Pugh’s ability to slice defenders, but because of the way she has handled the spotlight during her meteoric rise to fame.
“She has so much poise,” Cavarra said. “She’s so humble. She just worked her butt off and deserves everything she’s gotten.”
Pugh debuted for the USWNT in January 2016 at age 17, the youngest American to play at that level since 2003. Later that year, Pugh played in the Rio Olympics, where she became the youngest American ever to score in an Olympic match.
“We’re all starting our college careers, which is a huge deal, and she’s going to the Olympics,” Cavarra said. “And if you ask her about it, she would just give such a humble answer like, ‘yeah, I hope I get time.’ She’s just an awesome person.”
Pugh was initially set to continue her career at UCLA, but opted to go pro instead, signing with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit. Pugh later inked endorsement deals with Nike, Gatorade, and Neutrogena among other mega-companies.
Since the World Cup started in early June, Pugh’s Gatorade ad, which co-stars Lionel Messi, has logged millions of views.
“She had to grow up a lot faster than all of us did. She had a lot more responsibility at the time than we all did, but she’s just a class act,” said Cavarra, who talks to Pugh at least once a week. “It’s just funny—she pops up on Gatorade commercials, and that’s just nuts to see that one of my best friends is so big.”
Cavarra and Pugh first became teammates when they were 9. Before that, they played for rival clubs. That’s when it became clear to Cavarra that Pugh was destined for greatness.
“We were still doing 9-v-9, my dad was the coach at the time, and he’d point out before the game, ‘all right this girl is fast, technical, you gotta watch out for her. Give her space to defend or she’ll eat you alive,’” Cavarra said.
After they joined forces, Cavarra and Pugh led Real Colorado to back-to-back state championships in 2010 and 2011. Cavarra chuckled when asked if she can remember a game that typified Pugh’s stardom.
“Every game,” she said. “She’d chop suey people, go in and out, and girls would have no chance. I mean, the amount of goals she scored was unreal in our club days.”
Cavarra likened Pugh to U.S. soccer icon Mia Hamm, who debuted for the USWNT in 1987 at the age of 15 and was the first woman elected into the World Football Hall of Fame.
Hamm scored 158 goals in 276 caps with the USWNT, bringing home the World Cup in 1991 and 1999.
“I grew up watching Mia Hamm, but she hasn’t played in so long, so I think it’s awesome for soccer to have another young player like Mal and Tierna Davidson for younger girls to look up to,” Cavarra said.
Those girls include Cavarra’s Arizona teammates.
“Yeah, I get a lot of questions about it,” Cavarra said of her relationship with Pugh. “I’ll post photos with her whenever I see her when we’re back in Colorado, and people are like, ‘no way, you actually know her?’ I’m like, ‘yeah I grew up with her.’
“Even (athletes) from other sports will ask, ‘oh wait, is that the same girl that I keep seeing on Gatorade commercials?’”
A couple years ago, Pugh was in the stands when Cavarra and the Wildcats battled the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder.
When the game ended, Cavarra sought out Pugh, and the two chatted and posed for a photo.
“I had to get in line to see her because she’s so well known that every girl that was watching was there to see her and talk to her,” Cavarra said. “But I can’t be that mad about it. It’s pretty cool.”
No time for critics
Pugh and the USWNT drew some ire for running up the score and celebrating during the 13-0 rout of Thailand.
Cavarra is disgusted by it.
“I hated that. I can’t believe they’re even getting criticism,” she said. “I think it shows how sensitive our society is. But Mal just made her debut World Cup goal at 21 years old, and you’re expecting her to not celebrate? I think that’s just ridiculous. As a U.S. team, and even as a country, we’re so much more competitive. We’re not just going to let someone walk all over us or go easy on someone just because we’re beating them. That’s never how we’ve been. And I think they kept our mentality by running up the score. It would have been worse if they just made Thailand chase around.”
Arizona had some lopsided victories in 2018, including a 6-0 blowout against Houston Baptist and a pair of 5-0 wins over UTEP and Southeast Missouri State. Cavarra joked that she would have to get after head coach Tony Amato if he asked them to ease up in those games.
“That would have made me so mad. I don’t believe in taking it easy on people,” she said. “That’s going to make them better and stronger, but it also gives our team a lot more confidence. Like, four girls for the U.S. team made their debut. Why shouldn’t every girl try and score and build their confidence? That’s only going to help us later in the season and individually and as a team.”