US midfielder Rose Lavelle soaring in her first World Cup

Lavelle is one of 11 total rookies on this year's World Cup roster, and she is producing on soccer's biggest stage.

Rose Lavelle United States World Cup Soccer
Rose Lavelle has scored two goals in two games played for the United States at the World Cup. –Getty Images

REIMS, France — U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle shimmied a bit in her seat and jokingly cupped her hand to her ear as she sat beside her coach, Jill Ellis, at a news conference in advance of Monday’s knockout round game against Spain. Ellis had just been asked to describe what Lavelle brings to the team.

“She’s a joy,” Ellis said, as the superlatives flowed. “The way she approaches the game, how she plays on the field, who she is off the field.”

On a U.S. team with 11 World Cup rookies, Lavelle, 24, is arguably the most creative young playmaker. Her talent was on full display when she produced one of the best games of her career in a 2-0 victory against Sweden on Thursday.

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Even though Lavelle flummoxed Sweden with her whimsical play and sneaky speed, Ellis replaced her in the 63rd minute with Christen Press. The move, Ellis said, was more about the Americans’ abundant skill and depth than Lavelle’s play or fitness.

Throughout the United States’ first three games of the World Cup, Ellis has assembled her lineups as one might cook a pot of bouillabaisse: no matter what ingredient she added, the result was the same.

After playing everyone on the roster except her backup goalkeepers in the group stage, and starting only three players in all three games, the Americans scored a record 18 goals in three shutouts.

“I think honestly the strength of this team is we have a lot of strengths,” Lavelle said. “We’re really deep and we don’t rely on one person to get the job done. That gives us confidence moving forward, knowing that anyone can step up, have a big play and help us win the game.”

Having such mix-and-match versatility will help the Americans in the knockout round after only three days rest. Spain has had a six-day layoff. Should the top-ranked Americans beat No. 13 Spain, a quarterfinal match with France might await. (France played Brazil Sunday.) Also, given a heat wave is about to hit France with temperatures expected to be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) this week, depth may be critical.

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The Americans say they will be full strength against Spain: Ellis declared midfielder Julie Ertz, who missed the Sweden game with a minor hip problem, and forward Alex Morgan, who left it early after absorbing a hard foul late in the first half, as “fine.”

Ellis’ tinkering with different combinations has been purposeful, given the quick turnarounds. Lavelle made her World Cup debut with two goals and an assist in her team’s opening game, a 13-0 thrashing of Thailand, then sat out against Chile, a 3-0 victory, as Ellis rested seven starters. She returned against Sweden, and helped the U.S. press its attacks from the opening minute.

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“You can see what she is capable of doing in terms of the final pass, in terms of being dangerous with the shot, the pass, the separation she can create,” Ellis said. “She’s one of the best players in the air …”

As Ellis continued, Lavelle contorted her face, disagreeing with her coach about her ability in the air. “You are, Rose,” Ellis continued. “Your timing is really good and we have some beasties in the air, but you get up there.”

Despite Lavelle’s current status, her spot on the World Cup roster wasn’t always assured, given her struggles with a series of hamstring injuries. Two years ago, she made her first national team appearance, scored her first international goal and after a standout career at Wisconsin became the first pick in the National Women’s Soccer League draft. But an injury cut her rookie season short.

“They always had this belief in me that I was going to come back and be the same player I was before I got hurt,” Lavelle said about the national team’s coaches. “Knowing that I had their confidence helped me get back to that point.”

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In addition to her increasingly sturdy and incisive midfield play, she also brings to the team an endearing sense of silly: See her choreographed hip-hop dances with teammates; feel her anxiety as takes on life’s big questions (how best to ask the stranger in the aisle seat when she needs to use the restroom?); and follow the weight loss saga and sartorial choices of her bulldog, Wilma Jean Wrinkles, a regular on her social media accounts.

Wilma Jean is missing the World Cup — Lavelle said last week that she had installed an app on her phone that allows her to deliver treats to Wilma Jean on command — but here in France, life is good. In a country where dogs do everything with their humans, short of taking long drags on cigarettes, Lavelle is in pooch heaven.

“There are so many great dogs here,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how to say, ‘Can I pet your dog?’ in French, but if the dog and their human look friendly, I’ll do it anyway.”