Mallory Swanson (formerly Pugh) has scored in six of the USWNT’s six matches. In fact, she has eight total goals in this stretch. In 2023 so far, a foot injury to Sophia Smith has left Swanson as the team’s primary threat. While Swanson’s talent has been evident since she was a teenager, she’s currently in a historic run of form with the national team.
Swanson made her debut with the USWNT senior squad in 2016 when she was just 17 years old, and the next year she would skip college to join the NWSL’s Washington Spirit. While she led the Spirit in goals her first season, she was also relied on a lot, and club infrastructure at the time was lacking. Still, Swanson’s talent was undeniable.
It wasn’t just that she’s fast, it’s her ultra rare ability to be even faster with the ball at her feet. Factoring in physics, the mechanics of dribbling and a bunch of other nerd stuff, it shouldn’t be possible for someone to run faster while accomplishing the additional task of controlling and dribbling a ball. Somehow, Swanson does this.
Against Japan, in a game in which the USWNT was being passed around like traffic cones, Swanson got an opportunity to steal a goal and pounced. The finish itself looked simple enough: she got 1v1 with the keeper and picked a corner to roll the ball into before the keeper could react. But everything prior to that moment required a combination of skills few players possess.
Speaking after the game, Swanson noted that she’d been in similar positions before but hung back to ensure she wouldn’t have that problem. "Three times before that, I was offside,” said Swanson. “Vlatko told me to not be offside. So it was like, 'Okay, I'm not gonna be offside on this one.'"
This meant that Swanson would have to get her jump, angle and timing perfect if she was going to turn Morgan’s knock-on into an assist. Swanson did, and it was pure art. After the match, the USWNT Twitter account posted a sequence of 228 frames of Swanson’s run and goal, taken by photographer Brad Smith. The compilation is a hypnotic look at an unreal talent moving gracefully and fluidly but with devastating effect.
Watching the clip, you can see nearly every facet of Swanson’s game that makes her special. First, the speed. Within a short burst of steps she goes from behind her opponent to out of their reach. While a lot of players have blazing speed, Swanson’s touch, control and technique are what pushes her into the realm of devastating.
Swanson takes perfectly timed, soft and purposeful touches in succession that allow her to maintain her stride and place the ball and goalkeeper in a position that gives her the advantage. Watching the clip, Swanson takes five touches total. The first three settle a bouncing ball and get it spinning at a speed that matches her own. The fourth is taken after a peek at the goalkeeper’s positioning, and the fifth is the strike that places it in the net.
Swanson’s running style and dribbling technique allow her to keep control of the ball at the furthest extension of her stride. This is part of the reason she seems to move faster with the ball. It’s an unreal bit of skill that allows her to push the ball wherever she wants on the pitch and ensure she’s always in position to get a touch to it before a defender. It’s how she scored one of the goals of the season in the NWSL last year as well.
Swanson is having her best stretch for club and country. Last season with the Chicago Red Stars, she scored 11 goals and notched six assists, her best output in both departments as a professional. Now she’s carrying that form to her national team duties, and when it’s been needed most.
Without 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith on the pitch to share the scoring burden, the spotlight has shifted to Swanson. She’s responded by scoring every goal save for one for the USWNT in the SheBelieves Cup.