In World Cup mixed zones after games, Rose Lavelle appears to alternate between “been-here-before” and “bewildered.” During the group stage, at one of the stadiums where the mixed zone was set up so that the players walked by TV crews first, then had to turn a corner to get to other media, Lavelle came around the barrier only to find dozens of faces eagerly awaiting the players. “Oh my goodness,” she said, as though she hadn’t expected to see quite so many people.
It was a fair comment to a certain extent; at this World Cup the mixed zone is often one long metal railing, so journalists stack up three and four deep, jockeying for the position where they think players will stop, which creates huge clumps of audio recorders spearing out of a wall of sweaty arms.
You would expect Lavelle, at 32 caps, 9 goals entering the final, and probably dozens of interviews between club and country, to be old hat at media by now. Yet she both is, and she is not. She answers questions with a mix of media-trained soundbites – every game is hard, we respect the opposing players, I just want to help the team – then peppers in little Rose-isms, an “oh my gosh” or a yikes twist to her mouth or a shrug as she tries (and fails) to explain how and why she’s so, so good.
Because there’s no denying that Rose Lavelle is a walking highlight reel. You never know when she’s going to do something that makes people rewatch a gif 20 times in a row, trying to process how, exactly, she just did that. In the semifinal against England, Lavelle snatched Millie Bright’s soul out of her body with a sublime nutmeg; ultimately, it was only the opening maneuver in a series of cuts and dragbacks and beautiful dribbles that opened up space.
Lavelle set up the game’s first goal with another highlight, this one an it-seems-so-obvious-in-retrospect move, by making herself a target for a forward pass and sucking in two defenders, then dummying the ball so that Kelley O’Hara could run onto it on the overlap, right into the space Lavelle had just created for her.
Lavelle seems to thrive on pulling defenders to her like a magnet, attracting two and three and sometimes four shirts while she keeps the ball at her feet. Her fantastic vision and movement, and her understanding of how plays develop two or three steps ahead of time, are exactly the elements we all seek in a number 10. Lavelle doesn’t quite play an out-and-out 10 role, though. She’s asked to drift between the wing and inside from the right of a 4-3-3, often sharing the center of the park with Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan, and sometimes Sam Mewis as well. Horan and Mewis are box-to-box workers who have strong defensive chops and good range to distribute or switch the point of attack. Lavelle fills in the gaps, the forwards orbiting around her as she dangles the ball in front of defenses and then zips away.
You’d think teams would especially target her; after all, Horan and Mewis and Ertz take their fair share of physical challenges, but they’re all built much more solidly than Lavelle. They can dish out a midfield slugfest, giving back twice what they get, but not Lavelle, who has a well-publicized history of hamstring issues and doesn’t play a brawling style. She rarely experiences the kind of physical punishment that would remove her from a game because she’s able to flit away from those encounters, eluding tackles and attempts to body the ball. She is the opposite of Carli Lloyd’s battering ram energy; she tinkers and twists the game like a Rubik’s Cube until she figures out how to unlock the back line.
That’s something the USWNT will need if the Netherlands decide to sit back in the final. The Dutch weren’t particularly stuck in a block against Sweden in the semis; the side tried to take chances but was ultimately exposed for those risks, resulting in a lot of last-ditch one-on-one defending. However, that play-not-to-lose style the Netherlands used against Sweden is unlikely to be pressed into service against the United States; there are no more games left to play, no more fear of going home early, and thus no more reason to be so cautious.
Lavelle can be a difference-maker, block or not. There are always concerns about a gifted player — yes, she scored in a friendly, but can she do it on the biggest stage in the world? Her performance against England demonstrated she certainly can, despite being cut short as it was by her substitution after she felt something in her hamstring. Multiple times, Lavelle has dismissed worries about her old injury resurfacing, first in the mixed zone after the game, and then at media availability two days before the final, laughing and saying, “It’s something I’m always paranoid about but I’ll be fine. I can get over it.”
After the game against England, Lavelle was also forthright about her less-than-stellar performance against France, saying outright, “I played pretty atrocious.” But she also conveys a healthy attitude about that performance, her delivery an honest but not malicious assessment. “I can’t be perfect every game and [before the semifinal] I kind of knew I just had to put that behind me, and what Jill decides, Jill decides. It’s not up to me. I just had to come ready.”
Lavelle came ready for England. But even she can’t properly explain how she set up the goal. It was another very Lavelle-ian moment when asked about how she plays with such verve. She has no real answer except to describe the play. “I know Kelley likes to fly forward,” she says, “And I saw her out of the corner of my eye making that run, and Tobin weighted the pass perfectly so I just went like that —” here Lavelle performs a sort of partial jumping jack move to mime the dummy “— and it worked out.”
The obvious answers as to how Lavelle is Lavelle are there: hard work, innate talent, a dash of coaching. But the formula for synthesizing all the elements into a creative and unpredictable package is surely a mystery, or else it would have been replicated to excess by now.
The USWNT midfield is perhaps the number-one reason to be excited about the team going into the future. The 2020 Olympics will probably be the precursor to a small wave of retirements as the old guard find closure on their careers. It’s the natural cycle of a team, as (Mufasa voice) the older players file out, and the younger players take their place as the new starters. Lavelle is the future of the USWNT midfield, whether they remain committed to their fast, direct, shock-and-awe style, or they decide to play more of a buildup game.
But that’s tomorrow; for today, there’s a World Cup on the line, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Four years ago, Lavelle was still in college and watching the United States play Japan in the 2015 World Cup final at a pizza shop. “Just a young child,” Lavelle sighs mock-dramatically over her college-aged self. She knew then with certainty the US would win.
Now, in the thick of things herself, she hedges her responses to the media when asked about the United States earning another star above their crest. “When I wasn’t in that situation I was like oh, they got it,” she says. “But I think Netherlands is a great team and they are at the top of their game right now. So we don’t take them lightly at all and I think it’s going to be kind of tooth and nail, a close game.”
Most predictions don’t foresee a closely-fought game, given the Netherlands’ overall tournament performance and the extra 30 minutes of playing required against Sweden, added to the fact that the team has had one less day to rest than the United States. Or the Netherlands could surprise us all and light up the final; soccer is funny that way, and there’s no reason to hold back anything now. Win or lose this tournament, Lavelle is the player who will help keep that spark of imagination alive on the United States team for World Cups to come.