Rose Lavelle is worth the wait as U.S. women win Tournament of Nations

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Rose Lavelle hasn't played in a World Cup. She hasn't played in the Olympics. She hasn't played in any qualifying matches for either event. She wasn't even on the field when the United States clinched the Tournament of Nations on Thursday.

But she has a moment of magic in a frenetic, wild game against Brazil.

Given the history of that particular rivalry for the U.S. women's national team, such moments are as much of a prerequisite for a regular place on the field as those other checklist boxes.

And the light show and celebration notwithstanding, it might prove more meaningful than the trophy here.

The United States played with an marauding relentlessness going forward throughout the Tournament of Nations, crescendoing in the second half of the finale against Brazil. But the first half hinted at why that attack might get better still with the influence of a slight 23-year-old midfielder who looks worth the wait.

"I think her game kind of speaks for itself in terms of just what she brings to a team," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after Lavelle's 11th cap and first start in nearly a year. "Rose is a very different kind of player, and she's just really special. We recognized that a long time ago, and obviously had to wait a long time for this night, in terms of getting her back healthy and getting her out there for 45 minutes."

The U.S. women played Thursday against not only the South American rival that has been a part of so many memorable moments -- a disastrous World Cup semifinal rout in 2007, Megan Rapinoe's cross in 2011 and the comeback in San Diego a year ago, to name just three -- but also the standard set by Australia earlier in the day. With their 4-1 win, the Americans beat the Brazilians on the field and edged the Aussies for the tournament title. Both the United States and Australia finished with seven points, but the U.S. women took it on goal differential.

For the second year in a row, trophy or no trophy to tote on the plane, the Australians go home with an overall performance that solidifies their standing as a World Cup contender and one of the favorites in France. But also for the second year in a row, trophy or no trophy, a win against Brazil provided the U.S. women with reason to walk away optimistic about their own direction.

A last stand lifted spirts last year. After a loss against Australia in 2017, the United States found itself down 2-0 and then 3-1 against Brazil, either moment arguably the program's low ebb since the last Olympics. But the U.S. women rallied that afternoon, winning 4-3 and finding something of the DNA that earned the stars that adorn their jerseys. Again down a goal early this year despite dominating the first 20 minutes, undone by an unfortunate Tierna Davidson own goal on a Brazilian counter, the United States didn't panic. It knew it could come back.

So might you with options like Lavelle joining the party.

The sequence began with Rapinoe charging down the left side and lofting a cross that Alex Morgan flicked backward with her head to Lindsey Horan. (Morgan said afterward that she had heard Horan calling for the ball behind her.) Horan crossed the ball back into the middle of the 18-yard box, where Lavelle hit a half-volley into the corner of the goal in the 33rd minute.

"I probably shouldn't say this but I feel like usually I shank those way over the goal," Lavelle admitted. "I just wanted to make good contact and thankfully this time I did."

Brazil admittedly gave away real estate, but the United States earned the title in the second half Thursday on the strength of a front line that has looked like the best in the world for most of the year despite missing at least one piece throughout -- Tobin Heath early in the year and now Mallory Pugh.

Morgan and Rapinoe operate on their own wavelength at the moment. But like the improvisational master that she is, Heath meshed seamlessly in her return to health and a starting role in this tournament. Any other player could have been accused of waiting too long on the ball leading up to the goal that put the United States ahead in the second half. But Heath waited and waited until a Rapinoe run opened space for Julie Ertz at the back post. Then Heath used her foot like a sand wedge to chip the ball into position for Ertz to finish.

On and on they came, Heath scoring the goal that provided the all-important two-goal margin and Morgan adding insurance with the fourth.

"I think we've just continued to grow as a team and this tournament was just a great step forward for us," said Morgan, who also indicated she was fine after taking a knock to the ankle late in the game that led to her riding the stretcher off the field. "We've played such tough competition this year, and I feel like we were pretty dominating this tournament."

But reassuring as it was to see it perform so consistently for three games, we knew the front line is this team's strength, whatever combination of Heath, Pugh and Rapinoe flank Morgan. The goal aside, Lavelle showed throughout the first half why Ellis think so highly of her and why the coach has waited patiently while Lavelle worked her way back from a series of injuries, most notably a hamstring injury suffered in June 2017. She worked in sync with Heath on the right side. When she made a run on the right, only for the ball to be played left, she continued with such determination that Lavelle ended up behind a stunned Brazilian defender who thought she had all the room in the world after winning the ball.

JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images

Rose Lavelle, who scored her third career goal in her 11th cap, got her first start for the U.S. women since September 2017.

As important as what the coaches thought, it was clear what her teammates think of Lavelle when Heath, Morgan and Rapinoe were the first three players to surround her in celebration after her goal.

"I'm so happy just to see Rose on the field," Morgan said. "It was such a long recovery for her, so just to be back with the national team was great. And her getting the start, she was deserving of that. And obviously the goal, it was just amazing to see that."

Entering the tournament, Lavelle had played just 25 minutes for the United States in 2018. The coaching staff has been cautious at every turn.

"My mindset has kind of just been taking it training by training, game by game and resetting after each training or game," Lavelle said. "I think that kind of helped me going into this game, just realizing whether the 45 minutes is good or bad, it's a small victory to be able to go out and get my first start [coming back] and 45 minutes under my belt."

There is a reason the coaches waited so patiently for Lavelle to return, and why the veterans reacted the way they did to her goal: If she can stay on the field, Lavelle is something special.

"Obviously she's an incredibly technical player, and we have very technical players to play off her," Ellis said. "I think she sees and reads the game very well. And she solves pressure exceptionally well. So sure, in a game like tonight, where it gets stretched, she's going to be effective. But I also think she's going to be effective in a game where teams sit very low and she has to find space between tight lines.

"Her timing and her cleanness on the ball is really special."

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