From Last Chance to the American Messi: The Rise of Rose Lavelle

Noah Davis@noahedavisContributing Soccer WriterJuly 25, 2017

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It was September of last year, and the next great American soccer player was being given one last chance.

Paula Wilkins, head coach of the Wisconsin women's soccer team, was in her office in Madison on the phone with Jill Ellis, head coach of the U.S. women's national team.

Ellis wanted to bring Rose Lavelle, Wilkins' star, into camp. She'd watched as Lavelle dominated at the U-20 level and had seen flashes of brilliance from the player in previous looks with the senior national team. But Ellis had also seen inconsistency. And injuries. One time, it'd be a thigh strain. The next, a tweaked calf. Ellis hadn't yet been able to use Lavelle in a game.

So she called Wilkins to see what was up.

Wilkins was blunt. She didn't think Lavelle was ready for another shot. Wisconsin was coming off a tough loss in which its All-American midfielder had played poorly, and Wilkins didn't think Lavelle was mentally or physically in a state to handle the rigors of the national team.

Ellis asked what the problem was, physically. Wilkins told her what she'd been telling her player for four years: She needed to pay more attention to nutrition and taking care of her body.

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Apr 6, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; USA midfielder Rose Lavelle (16) controls the ball in the first half against Russia at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ellis told Wilkins to get Lavelle on the phone. It was time for some real talk.

"I was so scared," Lavelle remembers of being summoned to her coach's office and unwittingly walking in to find Ellis on speakerphone.

"I felt like Paula kind of ratted me out. I felt a little betrayed."

Wilkins remembers the scene, too: "I could see Rose's eyes glaring at me."

Ellis made the conversation simple, maintaining a tone Wilkins says was stern but not harsh:

"I said, 'Rose, you have some unbelievably special qualities. But how much do you really want this?'

"There has to be more sacrifice involved in terms of the physical commitment to strength training and to nutrition, the professionalizing piece. I know it's hard in college. They are college students. But I said, 'If you're not ready to commit to this, I can't keep going down this road where I invite you in and you're not healthy or not ready. I'm prepared to bring you in in January, but if you're not ready, you're running out of time.'"

When Lavelle hung up the phone, she asked her coach, "Why did you throw me under the bus with Jill?"

"And I said, 'Because you need to hear it,'" Wilkins recalls.

Lavelle had heard it before, but this time she heard it.

Maybe the hype surrounding the player now nicknamed "Sweet Baby Rose" doesn't stretch all the way back to her first goal at age five—when she toe-poked a ball into the net and then hid behind a teammate so the fans couldn't see her smiling—but Doug Conway could see it by the time Lavelle was in high school.

Conway, the coach at Mount Notre Dame High School in Cincinnati, remembers setting up the field with an assistant coach before the preseason started in August. As the pair worked, a van pulled up.

Lavelle, an incoming freshman, and her sister, a couple of years older, hopped out. Conway asked what they were doing.

"We come practice here every day," Lavelle responded.

That season, Conway saw firsthand the results of the work she was putting in. While she was small and slight, the speed of her feet and her head allowed Lavelle to avoid the physical play that might have slowed her down. She could escape pressure before it arrived, using her technique to prevent stronger players from getting close enough to take the ball.

One moment specifically stands out for the coach. Mount Notre Dame didn't have a strong soccer tradition, but the school reached the playoffs Lavelle's freshman year. They met the No. 1 seed, battling back and forth. With 15 or 20 minutes to go, the game was tied. Conway called his freshman over and gave her his version of the big-time-players-make-big-time-plays-in-big-time-games speech. He felt this was her moment. The opposing team featured a number of Lavelle's teammates from her club squad, defenders who knew she favored her left foot. Conway told his attacker to fake to her stronger side, pull the ball back, then shoot with her right.

"She did exactly that at the top of the box, getting the ball in upper 90," Conway says. "We won the game and knocked out the one seed."

"That's good coaching," I tell Conway over the phone.

He laughs. "That's good playing," he says. "That's being a student."

Lavelle continued her education at the University of Wisconsin, choosing to stay close to home rather than attend a more traditional women's college soccer powerhouse. The teenager was the standout of Wilkins' impressive 2013 rookie class. She scored six goals and added seven assists in 19 games, helping the Badgers win 10 games for the first time. Individual accolades came as well, as Lavelle became Wisconsin's first-ever Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earned the first of four All-Big Ten selections.

Wilkins recalls her young charge as someone who was as playful as she was brilliant on the ball, who wasn't difficult to manage but did have a tendency to show off.

"She was a prima donna in her own ways. She had to [nutmeg] you at practice to make herself feel better. But otherwise, she was low-maintenance from an ego standpoint," Wilkins says. "It makes things a lot easier."

Lavelle's international stature grew in January 2014 when she dominated at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships. She joined a stacked roster that included Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan, and the Americans scored 29 goals and conceded zero in five games, defeating Mexico 4-0 in the final. While Lavelle failed to register a goal or an assist, she took home the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player.

The technical committee wrote that she "was a driving force for the Americans throughout the competition. She was quick to regain possession and demonstrated sharp intellect in the transition to offense."

Eight months later, she joined the U-20s at the World Cup in Canada. Ellis, who had recently replaced Tom Sermanni as head coach of the senior squad, traveled to see the team play. She went primarily to watch Horan but was blown away by Lavelle.

"That was the first time where I was like, 'This kid is special,'" Ellis says. "She has the vision, seeing slip passes and balls in behind. She can create separation, which is massive. When there's a player in close, she can accelerate away, and she can do it with the ball. That's the piece that few can give us."

In action at the U20 World Cup
In action at the U20 World CupVaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Ellis, in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign, wasn't ready to bring Lavelle into the senior team, but the coach says she made a commitment to herself to get the teenager in as soon as she could.

The opportunity came in December 2015 during the Victory Tour following the U.S. win at the Women's World Cup. Lavelle, then the reigning Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, joined for the second half of the tour in matches against Trinidad & Tobago and China PR. But she did not make a game-day roster, and a pattern emerged.

"Rose was always carrying some sort of injury. She was never 100 percent," Ellis says. "I never thought I saw her best."

The frustration mounted. "It wasn't the funnest thing ever to be in that position," Lavelle says.

For maybe the first time, her progress was stalled—until that day in Wilkins' office.

After that, there was no looking back.

The next day, she went to the school's nutritionist, who talked her through what would be appropriate to eat at each meal and how much she should be consuming in relation to the calories she was burning. The truth was she had never had much of an appetite, but she committed to eating better. To becoming a professional.

"It's still a work in progress, but I'm a lot more on top of it," Lavelle says.

Ellis called her in January, wondering how effective the talk had been.

"If I'm honest, I wasn't sure what to expect," Ellis says. "You can have those conversations and it doesn't materialize into action."

But with Lavelle, she says, "I could literally tell the first time that we got on the field. There was more definition. There was a spark about her. She didn't seem worn down. Fresh. Energetic. Ready to pursue this."

Lavelle made her debut against England in front of a 26,500-fan sellout at Red Bull Arena.

From there, the hype train was damn near unstoppable.

It was the 22nd minute of Lavelle's third cap with the U.S. women's national team, against Russia in April. She sprinted to an overhit pass, touched the ball around one defender, pushed through the opposition while tiptoeing the end line, then nutmegged a second defender and very nearly drew a penalty.

The deft dribbling combined with the pace and power created a sublime highlight that set the American soccer internet ablaze.

Coming a month after the now-22-year-old attacker's brilliant—and GIF-able—performance in her debut against England, the subtext of those few seconds on the field at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, was clear:

Lavelle had arrived.

A little more than half a year after that meeting in Wilkins' office, with a few plays, Lavelle had announced herself as the next big thing on a women's team that's experiencing a generational shift.

The American squad usually wins more due to its physical dominance than its technical ability, so Lavelle's obvious ball skills stand out. She has that elusive, imaginative quality—"soccer swag," Megan Rapinoe calls it—of a woman who knows a thing or two about balling out in big games.

The American soccer community is right to be excited. And it is. Everyone is. Except Lavelle herself. For her, it's not quite that the hoopla is overblown but more that it misses the point.

"Those were cool moves," she says. "But now I feel like there's so much hype around my name, and I don't feel like it's deserved.

"When something happens to me, I want to feel like I earned it and I deserved it. I don't really feel that way, so it's annoyed me a little. Not annoyed me but I haven't taken it too seriously because I don't feel like it was that justified."

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 09: Rose Lavelle #16 of the U.S. scores a goal in the first half against Russia during the International Friendly soccer match at BBVA Compass Stadium on April 9, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

We are sitting in a conference room overlooking Harvard Stadium, a short distance from Jordan Field, where the No. 1 pick in the 2017 National Women's Soccer League draft plays for the Boston Breakers. Lavelle, wearing athletic clothes and a necklace bearing her college's 608 area code and sporting newly manicured fuchsia-adjacent nails, continues:

"I did some good things, but I also did some bad things. I don't think I played out of my mind."

She's right, of course. She has played well but not exceptionally so. She has plenty to learn, facets of her game to develop. For the opposition, that's the scary part. Because if Lavelle continues to improve at anywhere near the rate at which she has been progressing over the past couple of years, if she continues to refine her vision, continues to hit a truer shot from distance, continues to get stronger defensively—and there's no reason to think this won't happen—she won't just be embarrassing defenders in GIFs. The up-and-coming No. 10 will play a major role in helping the U.S. dominate on the scoreboard as well.

That's the thing that should really exhilarate American supporters.

"The one-v-ones and stuff, that's a special skill in and of itself. That's the sizzle. Fans love that," Rapinoe says. "But the amount of times that she pops up in the right spaces and understands where she is in the space, where she needs to move and where she brings other players in is really the special part of her game. At the highest level, that's what you need.

"You're not going to get 10 one-v-ones at the highest level. You're not going to get five nutmegs unless you're like Messi. Maybe she turns out to be Messi. But it's the ability to control games with your movement, bringing other players in, dictating tempo, really challenging the other team in that way for a full game."

Rapinoe continues: "She's that player who is always popping up wide open, and you're like, 'Why the hell is she so wide open?' She finds the space for herself and works off other people so well. I think her ability, especially at this young age, to get other people involved is really special. I'd like to see her float in and out. The qualities that she has are just perfect for the modern game."

Lavelle's early performance for the Breakers only added to her spring breakout.

The Breakers were coming off a last-place 3-2-15 season. Head coach Matt Beard, who previously coached the women's teams at Chelsea and Liverpool, didn't have any doubts that he wanted to draft the Wisconsin star.

"She reminded us of Paul Gascoigne, the English midfielder," he says. "He'd drop a shoulder and be gone. There was nothing you could do."

Lavelle slotted into a starting lineup featuring eight new players and went to work. She tallied her first goal and an assist in April, as the Breakers went 2-0-1. She became the first rookie to win Player of the Month honors in her first month in the league. Both Boston—currently 3-6-4—and Lavelle—stuck on two goals and one assist in eight games—have cooled off, but it's still been a successful rookie season.

Lavelle says she could be better—"I'm turning it over too much"—but her coach is pleased.

"She can obviously dribble with a ball, turn defense into attack," he says. "She's clever. But the other thing is that she's an infectious person. She's great for the dressing room as well as on the pitch. Every time she crosses that white line, she's going out there to have fun. But at the same time, she's quick, she has great vision, she can pass the ball, she can shoot."

Off the field, Lavelle is finding her way into the life of a full-time professional. She lives with a host family in Needham, Massachusetts, about 40 minutes, with traffic, from the stadium. There's a dog, a "chubby black fluff ball" of a mini goldendoodle who's not as playful as Wilma Jean Wrinkles, the Lavelles' bulldog back home in the 'Nati, but who satiates the young dog-loving star's fix.

She's adjusting to the post-Wisconsin world.

"I lived in a bubble in college," Lavelle says. "Everything I needed within one mile: friends, facilities, doctors, food. Now I'm in a city and everything is more spread out. I have to be more responsible with my time. I can't do things last-minute."

The transition hasn't been perfect. One day, Lavelle arrived at practice only to find there was no training that day. She took the mistake in stride, returning home, sleeping until 1:30 in the afternoon, heading to a PT appointment (gotta take care of that body) and then doing homework for the three classes she needed to finish to graduate with a sociology degree.

(The "Sweet Baby Rose" nickname came after Lavelle did homework at 6:30 a.m. on a recent road trip. She also played a match with her homework written on her hand.)

In April, Boston-based New Balance signed Lavelle as its first women's soccer player. Andrew McGarty, the company's sports marketing manager for U.S. soccer, and his team can almost watch the Breakers play from the windows of their corporate headquarters, which sit a mile away.

"We liked that she went to four years at Wisconsin rather than forgoing college or pulling out after two years," he says. "She was patient. She got her degree. She got her education. She fine-tuned her game. That's similar to how we're approaching the sport and business in general. Slow and intentional."

Maybe she was slow at first, but Lavelle is picking up speed at a rate that should alarm opponents.

In early June, she scored the only goal in a 1-0 friendly win over Sweden, a squad that defeated the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics by dropping numbers behind the ball and daring the Americans to break through.

Ellis was hoping to see what she could "do against a really low block, defensive team," and Lavelle didn't disappoint.

Now the challenge is to be consistently effective at the highest levels of the international game.

The rest of the American soccer community can only hope Lavelle's creativity, vision, speed and playmaking ability continue to produce.

If so, watch out. But even if that doesn't happen immediately, don't despair. It's only been a year and a half since Lavelle showed up during the Victory Tour and just 10 months since she entered Wilkins' office at Wisconsin to hear the riot act.

It's been a rapid rise, even if it hasn't always felt like it for this woman who's always in a hurry.

There will be more bumps along the way as she transitions from college star to professional and, quite possibly, attacking fulcrum for one of the best teams on the planet.

For now, she's trying to focus mostly on the things she can do on a daily basis to keep the momentum going that started that day back in September.

"I am someone who is thinking too much about the past or too much about the future," she says. "Right now, I'm trying to focus on the challenges that are here and now." 


Noah Davis is a contributing football writer for Bleacher Report, covering the game from his base in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis