On Sunday, the USA will face the Netherlands for the Women's
World Cup title in Lyon.
Four years ago, seven of the projected U.S. starters were in Vancouver, where the USA beat Japan, 5-2, in the Women's World Cup final. Three others were already pros and knocking on the national team's door.
For Rose Lavelle, rooting from her seat in a Seattle pizza shop, playing on the national team was the furthest thing from her mind.
She was playing summer ball with the Seattle Sounders Women of the W-League and watching with a bunch of teammates, hoping the USA could get revenge for losing to Japan in the 2011 final.
"I knew they were going to crush it," she says.
Four years later, Lavelle is one of the USA's midfield standouts. Her rise to stardom runs contrary to the story of the U.S. women's game, which is highly structured at the youth level and places an emphasis on athleticism.
The skills Lavelle showed off in leading the USA's first-half onslaught against England in Tuesday's semifinals in Lyon are rooted in the game she says she fell in love with thanks to the inspiration of her youth coach, the late Neil Bradford, and the moves she perfected in her backyard as a child growing up in Cincinnati.
“It was never anything really scripted, just me in the backyard with a net, playing around and having fun with the ball," she said on Friday at the U.S. team hotel overlooking Lyon. "I feel like those hours in the backyard kind of helped me."
It would often be a fight between tiny Rose, who didn't eat much as a child, and her mother, who wanted her to come in for dinner, to get her away from a ball. Developing moves, like the nutmeg between English defender Millie Bright’s legs that resulted in a fierce shot on goal in the first half on Tuesday, was a matter of survival.
“It was something that I have always been a smaller player," Lavelle said. "Growing up I had to figure out a way for them not to be able to touch me or bump me off the ball, so I think it has always been a part of my game and I don’t think there was ever a coach that didn’t approve of that."
Only later did she learn there were limits to her wizardry.
“Sometimes I would have a conversation with my college coach," she said, "and she would be like, 'Why are you doing that there?' And I would say, 'That’s part of my game.' And the reply would be, 'But not in our own defensive third!'”
After four years at the University of Wisconsin, Lavelle was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NWSL College Draft by the Boston Breakers and identified as a special talent by the national team.
The first two seasons weren't easy. The Breakers folded after Lavelle's first season, and her new NWSL team, the Washington Spirit, won only two of 24 games in 2018, none over the last four months of the season.
A wake-up call for Lavelle -- and the U.S. women -- came in her second international match -- a 3-0 loss to France at the 2017 SheBelieves.
"I was subbed at halftime," she said. "I was pretty awful."
But Lavelle, a star on the 2014 U.S. U-20 World Cup team, wasn't pushed along too quickly when she joined the senior team.
“It was nice to kind of get my foot in the water," she said, "and see what it took to be at that level, see what I needed to work on if I was going to stay at that level. I think it took me two, three years to feel like I actually was able to compete.”
A recurring hamstring injury set Lavelle back in 2018, but she was able to take it in stride.
"I think it was good time if ever there's good time for any injury," she said. "I didn't look too far ahead and think of what I could miss."
On the eve of Women's World Cup, Lavelle is again battling a hamstring injury. She exited the England game in the second half.
“I just didn’t want to be a liability on the field because I do know that with muscles, anything can happen,” she said. “It was a little bit more precautionary.”
Lavelle says she's ready to play in the final.
“I’m good,” she said. “It’s something I’m always paranoid about, but I’ll be fine.”
Photo: Frederic Chambert/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire