The joy in watching the U.S. women’s national soccer team dominate the sport is topped perhaps only by watching Rose Lavelle perform.

There is such beauty to her game, never more so than when she settles the ball on her preferred left foot and peeks at the target, her mind hatching a trusty plan before her legs execute it.

Only injuries — and the pandemic shutdown — have prevented a regular flow of such moments.

On Friday, Lavelle and the top-ranked Americans returned from a 261-day pause, the program’s longest since 1990. And just before halftime of a 2-0 away victory against the Netherlands, Lavelle reminded fans of the U.S. team and the sport what they have been missing.

Christen Press led the counterattack, pushing the ball ahead to Lavelle in stride on the right flank.

At this point, the Dutch should have known — and feared — what was coming.

Sixteen months ago, in the second half of the 2019 World Cup final between the teams in France, Lavelle made a central charge and shifted to her left before firing in the goal that secured a second consecutive U.S. title.

This time, as she approached a top corner of the penalty area, Lavelle took on Dominique Janssen, an experienced defender. Lavelle juked to her right. Janssen fell for it.

In a flash, the U.S. midfielder deployed her left foot, whipping a 17-yard shot into the upper far corner for a goal of world-class proportions.

Sari van Veenendaal, voted the best goalkeeper at the 2019 tournament, never had a chance. She dropped her shoulders, smacked her gloves together and kicked the grass.

As her teammates approached, Lavelle flashed a smile.

In individual sessions this week, the coaching staff had worked with Lavelle on “that exact move and exact shot in the same exact spot,” Coach Vlatko Andonovski said.

“The fact she was able to soak up the information and implement it in a game against an opponent like Netherlands, it just makes me happy,” he added. “It tells us how coachable she is and — as good as she is — how much she still wants to learn.”

The goal came not during the World Cup, Olympics or even a high-end tournament. It was a friendly, held without spectators in the Dutch city of Breda. After the cancellation of several games and the postponement of the Olympics, Lavelle and the rusty U.S. team were eager to gauge their status since last performing as a unit in March.

The Americans won by the same score as in the World Cup final and extended their unbeaten streak to 32, dating from January 2019.

Lavelle, 25, was representing not only the United States but Manchester City, the English brand that sports a world-class women’s team. In August, the club persuaded her to leave the Washington Spirit and National Women’s Soccer League.

Working her way into a new team, Lavelle has started in only two of her six league and cup appearances.

Nonetheless, when the NWSL resumes next year, the Spirit and the league will surely miss her. If she returns to the NWSL someday, she would play for OL Reign, a team in Tacoma, Wash., that acquired her league rights from the Spirit as the Manchester signing was being finalized.

With Lavelle overseas, her national team call-ups will receive a greater share of the public’s attention. On Friday, she displayed many of the same qualities that launched her into stardom in 2019.

“She is finally healthy,” Andonovski said. “She is playing well. She is mentally in a good stage. And the fact she scored a goal like this just proves she is ready and she is a very good player.”

For those who have watched Lavelle regularly, her 13th international goal in her 46th appearance seemed to follow a well-rehearsed script.

“She can do that day in and day out,” teammate Crystal Dunn said of Lavelle’s left-footed finish. “She is a young player, but she plays so much further beyond her years.”

To play for many more years, Lavelle is going to need to avoid the injuries that have plagued her career. She has a history of hamstring ailments, and this summer an ankle injury slowed her at the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Lavelle’s fitness and effectiveness are part of a powerhouse U.S. squad that, despite the long layoff and the NWSL players out of season, showed no signs of letting up.

On Friday, Kristie Mewis, elder sister of World Cup midfielder Sam Mewis, returned to the team after a six-year gap and scored in the 70th minute. She collected Lynn Williams’s one-touch pass and converted from 10 yards.

Forward Alex Morgan, who gave birth in May, entered at the start of the second half, her first appearance since the World Cup. Sophia Smith, 20, and Jaelin Howell, 21, made their senior debuts.

The Americans weren’t perfect, but in overwhelming the fourth-ranked Dutch, they finished a difficult year with nine victories in nine attempts and an eighth shutout.

“A lot of things changed in 2020, but one thing that didn’t change — and one thing that will never change with this team — is the heart and the mind,” Andonovski said. “I was so proud of the players, the way the stepped up and handled the game.”

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