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Rose Lavelle Dribbled Her Way Into World Cup Immortality

Photo: Richard Heathcote (Getty Images)

One name stood out for its relative obscurity on the projected starting lineup for the USWNT before the Women’s World Cup began. There were the names everyone knows, the ones that belong to some of the greatest players in U.S. soccer history, but hidden behind the Rapinoes and Morgans and Heaths, and in front of the Sauerbrunns and Dunns and O’Haras was Rose Lavelle. The 24-year-old midfielder from the NWSL’s Washington Spirit was overshadowed in the midfield, too, where she was expected to start next to 2015 World Cup champion Julie Ertz and the 2018 NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan. And yet, by the end of a long and ultimately successful month in France, Lavelle outshone them all. She became a legendary protagonist for a legendary team, and in the process made her own name.

Lavelle had a relatively quiet game in the build-up play against the Netherlands in the final on Sunday. She only completed two out of three dribble take-ons, and only 67.6 percent of her passes, a low number for a ball-playing midfielder; she did create two chances with her passing, but neither led to goals. Statistically, it was not her best game of the tournament, but also who gives a shit?

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With the U.S. clinging to a 1-0 penalty-aided lead in the 69th minute, Lavelle found herself with the ball just inside the midfield circle. The Dutch defenders were playing way off her, displaying a tangible fear of getting dribbled past. That turned out to be a mistake, as Lavelle coolly glided to a shooting distance then ripped a left-foot laser into the bottom right corner of the goal, past Sari van Veenendaal, who was crowned the best goalie in the tournament after the game.

Just like that, it was 2-0 U.S. and the fourth star was well on its way onto the team’s shirts:

That Lavelle ended the World Cup as the Bronze Ball winner is fitting; she was likely the best USWNT player in France, although Julie Ertz and Kelley O’Hara both have a claim to that title, as well, but her contributions were often clouded by the broader Narrative surrounding the team. She didn’t make any comments about Trump, didn’t really participate in the celebration brouhaha, and, despite starting every game but one* (against Chile, when most of the starters rested), she stayed more or less out of the spotlight. The only time the story could have shifted to her—after Lavelle’s hamstring injury against England in the semi-final, there were questions about whether she would fit enough to start the final, particularly given that she has a history of hamstring injuries—Megan Rapinoe’s own hamstring injury became the A Story in the run-up to the last game.

As long as Megan Rapinoe is playing soccer, she will be the story; that’s not her fault and it sure isn’t Lavelle’s. As it happened, Lavelle was both unheralded heading into the World Cup and quiet throughout, serving less as a flashpoint scorer—her first two goals in France were lost in the 13 goal deluge against Thailand, though her first was either the best or second-best of that game—and more as manager Jill Ellis’s safety valve in the midfield. That was expected to be Lindsey Horan’s role, before she got benched for the three of the four knockout games, and Lavelle made it her own. It’s an important job: break the opponent presses, both through passing and her smooth and controlled dribbling, get the ball to the dangerous trio up top, and, when called upon, be brave enough to rip some shots from deep (Lavelle ended the tournament with six shots on goal).

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The U.S. likely doesn’t win the World Cup as comfortably as they did without Lavelle running point from a classic number eight position, and she did just enough hard work in defense to allow the front three of Morgan, Rapinoe, and Heath to sit and pounce on any loss of possession by opponents. Alongside Ertz and another previously lesser-known player in Sam Mewis, Lavelle made sure that the U.S. had midfield supremacy in essentially every game they played, even when they were getting out-possessed. Against Spain, in the first real test for the USWNT, Lavelle was constantly tasked with receiving the ball deeper than she’d like and flipping it into the attacking third; she completed seven of 10 passes into the final segment of the field, and created a chance with a long through ball in the first ten minutes of the game, setting the tone against a Spain that did not come to fuck around.

The praise has fallen on Rapinoe, who won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot (at 34, she also became the oldest player to score in a World Cup final on Sunday), and Morgan finished right behind her with the Silver Boot. On the other end, Alyssa Naeher had a redemption tour of a tournament that peaked with her instant-classic penalty save against England. But Lavelle was the player that stood out the most through the team’s seven games, by virtue of doing the dirty work in midfield and then popping up with the biggest goal of the tournament.

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It wasn’t the game-winner, but with the Netherlands playing defensively in hopes of shithousing a draw and winning it in a shootout, Lavelle’s run and thunderous left footed blast sealed away any hopes for a Dutch equalizer. Now, everyone can bask in the glory of a fourth World Cup championship—and a second in a row, only the second time a team has accomplished that in tournament history. That party started in the 69th minute, when the least well-known USWNT starter became a national team legend.

CORRECTION (2:07 p.m.): The article previously stated that Lavelle started every game; she rested during the Chile match in the group stages, along with other key starters. This has been updated above.

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