The Woman at the Center of America’s World Cup Chances
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s critical to America’s gold medal chances.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 5, we explore the history-making 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team and all of the unheralded athletes, policymakers and activists that made their journey possible. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
Rose Lavelle’s most vivid World Cup memory isn’t her favorite.
She was 8 years old, and the U.S. women’s national team had just been knocked out of the 2003 World Cup by Germany, who had thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Lavelle had been watching the game at her parents’ house in Cincinnati and became so upset that she stormed up to her bedroom. When her mom came to check on her, Lavelle said, “I just want to be left alone.”
“I cried in my bunk bed the rest of the night,” she says.
Clearly, Lavelle, now 24, has been invested in the U.S. national team for a while.
She always seems to be having fun, whether it’s choreographing hip-hop dance routines or using social media exclusively to make people laugh.
By the time she attended the University of Wisconsin — it would still be years before the senior national team called her up — her sights were firmly set on getting there. She majored in sociology because soccer was her plan A, and she had no plan B — a college teammate who majored in sociology told her that with the same degree Lavelle could get a job in “literally anything.” So Lavelle said, “I guess I’ll do that then.”
Fortunately, plan A worked out.
Today, when the U.S. embarks on its campaign to defend its World Cup title against Thailand, the starting lineup will probably include Lavelle. And she won’t just be starting — she’ll be at the center of it all.
Lavelle is what’s known in soccer as a “No. 10.” She’s a creative playmaker who pulls the strings of the attack, creating chances on goal for herself or the players around her. She sees spaces to thread the ball that don’t exist to the untrained eye, and her passing can bypass entire defenses. She can also dribble her way around and through back lines. Back heel flicks, spins and turns are part of her game.
It’s fun to watch, and it’s vital to the U.S. chances of winning a World Cup. There’s no one else on the roster like her.
“She’s very creative, and I love playing with her,” says teammate Mal Pugh, also Lavelle’s roommate in Washington, D.C., when they play with their club team, the Washington Spirit. “She has this flair to her and she can create a spark.”
The way Lavelle plays feels a bit like an extension of her personality. She always seems to be having fun, whether it’s choreographing hip-hop dance routines with Pugh at their apartment, or using social media exclusively to make people laugh, whether with one-liners or photos of her dog, Wilma.
It’s gotten to the point where Wilma, a bulldog that Lavelle’s parents got for her when she was a senior in college, has a fan following of her own. Lavelle laments that when she tries to FaceTime Wilma, who still lives in Cincinnati, her dog is “completely oblivious.” Lavelle got a webcam for Christmas that allows her to remotely shoot treats at Wilma, which Lavelle calls the best gift she’s ever gotten.
“I have to be careful now, though, because my whole family has it hooked up to their phones so she can get quadruple the treats a day,” Lavelle says. “She is on a weight loss journey.”
Bought Wilma rain boots but she's ungrateful and hates them pic.twitter.com/YLEQNCpYnW
— Rose Lavelle (@roselavelle) January 26, 2017
But the worry about Lavelle’s fun-loving approach to life and soccer is that the World Cup will demand a more serious side, and she’s never competed in such an intense environment. This is Lavelle’s first major tournament, and in World Cups opponents tend to tackle just a bit harder, run a little faster, fight a little longer. What Lavelle offers in flair and gracefulness on the field, she lacks when it comes to physicality and being able to push players off the ball.
“She is someone who can come into the tournament and walk out a massive star,” says Aly Wagner, Fox Sports’ lead analyst for Women’s World Cup coverage. “Or she can walk into that first match with a starting role and not have one by the fourth game. I see her as someone who is not necessarily written in pen as a starter because I don’t know what to expect from her with the physicality of the game.”
Even coach Jill Ellis has admitted that Lavelle’s defensive game is not as strong as others. But the U.S. seems to need her. Too often, the U.S. attack relies on its flanks — and stars like wingers Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath — to create chances. Lavelle, in Ellis’ words, “spreads the game,” moving the ball in unpredictable ways to make the American attack more dynamic.
The best of Lavelle may be yet to come too. She’s been injured off-and-on for the better part of two years with hamstring tears. She says she is only now feeling like she has regained all the confidence and fun she used to have on the ball, which took much longer than she expected. “That injury honestly scarred me,” Lavelle says with nervous laughter.
Now, she’s staying on top of her fitness. She goes to physical therapy regularly and perhaps it’s fitting that her physical therapist was the first person she told she made the World Cup team.
She got the confirmation call from Ellis while waiting in her therapist’s office. The conversation between Lavelle and Ellis wasn’t a long one — “she had a lot of calls to make,” Lavelle says — but it set the tone for the biggest tournament of Lavelle’s life.
“It was exciting,” Lavelle says, “but it was also like, OK, now we have work to do.”
And this time, she has a real stake in whether or not there’s a tearful ending.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Rose Lavelle
- What’s the last book you read? I just finished Harry Potter this year.
- What do you worry about? Wilma growing old.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Wilma.
- Who’s your hero? My parents.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To live in Cincinnati for the rest of my life.
Read more: How the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team nearly lost.