DeMelo was supposed to start college in 2016, but she delayed her enrollment at USC until the spring of 2017 to play for the USA at the 2016 U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea. She was drawing rave reviews with the U.S. U-23s before she tore her Achilles tendon in 2019.
"Tearing my Achilles was brutal,” she said. “You think you’re doing well and injuries always come at the worst time. Just being able to come back from that and get to a new level has been awesome. It kept me super-hungry to come back and not just come back the player I was, but even better."
It took a while to play at USC again. She red-shirted in 2019 and then the fall 2020 season was pushed back to the spring of 2021 because of the Covid shutdown.
"I think I have more of an appreciation for the game," she said, "because it was taken away from me for so long.”
It wasn't until 2022 that DeMelo turned pro, signing with Racing Louisville as the No. 4 pick in the NWSL SuperDraft. By now she was 23, but she quickly became one of the NWSL's top midfielders with four goals and two assists in her rookie season.
DeMelo took her game to another level in 2023, scoring eight goals in 14 games before getting the call from Coach Vlatko Andonovski that he was taking her to the World Cup.
She knew she was on Andonovski's radar, getting texts from him and going over video clips with him. The injury to 2019 U.S. World Cup star Rose Lavelle that kept her out three months worked in DeMelo's favor of being taken as cover.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations," DeMelo said of her communications with Andonovski, "but one of the hardest things is making this team, so I was never super confident, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make it. I deserve to make it. It was, if it happened, I was super grateful for it, and I was just working hard to get there."
And when he called?
“It was surreal," she said. "Shocked. I was grateful. Excited."
DeMelo earned her first cap in the USA's 2-0 win over Wales in its send-off match and started the first two games at the World Cup as Andonovski slowly built up the minutes of Lavelle, who came on as a sub for DeMelo in both games.
The USA's performances in the 3-0 win over Vietnam and 1-1 tie with the Netherlands were underwhelming, but they still left the two-time defending champions in good shape to get out of their group for the ninth time in nine trips to the World Cup.
"I think the team is in a very good spot," DeMelo said on Saturday when she spoke at the USWNT's daily media briefing. "I think we are a very close team, so we really lean on each other and we're going to be honest with each other. I don't think we were very happy with our last performance and we're OK with that. I think we're just an honest group. But we're very hopeful and we know we're going to get the job done."
Standing in the USA's way on Tuesday (3 a.m. ET kickoff) is Portugal in their Group E finale, a match DeMelo's father wouldn't miss for the world.
"He's from Portugal," she says, "so he just thinks it's an honor to have me represent the U.S. but also being able to play such a quality opponent like Portugal, who made the World Cup for the first time, which is an awesome for them."
USA-Netherlands Photo: DeMelo in action against Dutch midfielder Jackie Groenen. Credit: Kerry Marshall/ISI Photos. Racing Louisville photos courtesy of Racing Louisville.