LYON, France — Four summers ago, as the U.S. women’s national team played Japan for the World Cup trophy in Vancouver, Rose Lavelle was 140 miles south, eating pizza.
At the time, she was a rising junior from the University of Wisconsin spending the offseason with the Seattle Sounders women’s team, a second-tier gig that welcomed amateur players.
“I wish I would have written this down so people would believe me,” Lavelle said Friday, “but they had gotten so close [in 2011] that going into 2015, once they got to the finals, they weren’t going to let it slip. I knew they were going to crush it.”
The U.S. squad did just that, winning, 5-2, for its first title in 16 years and third overall.
“Man, that was ages ago,” Lavelle said. “I was just a young child.”
Four years on, Lavelle is in position to help the United States win another championship. As long as a troublesome hamstring does not betray her, the Cincinnati native is projected to start again Sunday against the Netherlands at Stade de Lyon.
Lavelle, 24, has been a revelation this summer, starting all but one match and scoring twice in the opening rout of Thailand. She also drew a controversial penalty kick that led to Megan Rapinoe’s tiebreaking goal against Spain in the round of 16.
In U.S. circles, her skill set and creativity are well known. But at the World Cup, performing in the shadows of Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, Lavelle entered her first major tournament without a global reputation.
Opponents know her now. Just 5-foot-4 and physically unassuming, Lavelle has sparkled in the midfield with quick footwork, unpredictable runs and baffling escapes in tight space.
In Tuesday’s semifinal against England, she provided the first highlight by pushing the ball between Millie Bright’s legs along the end line before regaining possession and testing goalkeeper Carly Telford with a rising shot.
Heath is the master of that move, known as a nutmeg. But on that night, it was Lavelle who drew gasps from the crowd.
“I don’t think you see that type of player in the U.S. often,” Morgan said. “She is very special.”
Lavelle paid her dues with the youth national teams, but as she watched the 2015 World Cup from afar, she remembered thinking she was a long way from competing at the premier level.
“I definitely wasn’t ready to be in this environment,” she said Friday. “I wasn’t good enough.”
Coach Jill Ellis thought otherwise. After the Americans won the title, Ellis began integrating new players into the program during the latter part of the fall victory tour. Lavelle was among them; she trained with the squad but did not make her senior debut for another 15½ months.
“It was a really nice learning experience,” she said of the 2015 call-up. “I don’t think I was really ready, so I felt like it was nice to dip my foot in the water and see what it took to be at that level, to see what I would need to work on if I were to stay on that level.”
Her career took flight in 2017 with attention from Ellis and the Boston Breakers selecting her first in the National Women’s Soccer League draft. Still, persistent hamstring problems limited her availability for both club and country, and with Ellis experimenting with players and formations, Lavelle’s immediate future was unclear.
“It took me two or three years,” she said, “before I felt like I was able to compete at this level.”
Lavelle found a new home before the 2018 NWSL season began: The Breakers folded, and the Washington Spirit traded up so it could claim her with the top pick of the dispersal draft. Injuries sidelined her much of last season, but in the World Cup qualifying tournament last fall, she scored three times in five appearances (four starts). Mostly healthy and in good form, Lavelle started seven of 10 matches in the six-month buildup to the World Cup.
Off the field, she is a personality. Her roommate in Lyon, midfielder Lindsey Horan, called Lavelle “weirdly funny, one of the most strange girls I know but the funniest girl I know. I love her — her sense of humor, her random comments.”
Lavelle’s English bulldog, Wilma, is the star of her Twitter account. Asked a few weeks ago about her social media habits during the tournament, she said: “I have this little pet cam. It’s an app, and I just go on it and I can shoot out treats to Wilma anytime I want to, so I get on that a lot.”
On a more serious note, Lavelle is aiming to regain full strength by Sunday. In the semifinal, she limped off in the 65th minute.
“I didn’t want to be a liability on the field,” she said. “It was a little more precautionary. . . . It’s something I am always paranoid about, but I’ll be fine. I can get over it.”