Rose Lavelle and the freedom to be herself: How her OL Reign and USWNT form has taken off

At 24 years old, Rose Lavelle announced herself to the world with a stunning goal in the 2019 Women's World Cup final to help beat the Netherlands and seal another trophy for the U.S. women's national team. She lifted the Bronze Ball later that day, a nod to her superlative performances throughout the tournament, and in many ways, a star had arrived.

Breakout major tournaments have a way of presenting players' journeys as linear paths made of singular moments, when they are really one step in an arduous trek that requires great timing. Lavelle was exceptional in that final -- no surprise to anyone who had tracked her ascent -- but she was also still a young player striving for more consistency.

Now, with the World Cup next year, and before that this summer's qualification tournament, the CONCACAF W Championship, Lavelle is truly in her prime and playing better than ever. Much of that has to do with a return to the National Women's Soccer League, where she is a focal point as the No. 10 for OL Reign.

"Rose is obviously a super dynamic player, so we want to give her that freedom to do that," OL Reign and U.S. teammate Megan Rapinoe said. "She kind of has to be a reins-off kind of player."

Away from the spotlight in France in 2019, Lavelle played only six games for her then-club, the Washington Spirit, because of a combination of injuries and availability issues as the NWSL played through most of the World Cup. Manchester City soon swooped in for the U.S. star after her breakout summer, but Lavelle's time in England was largely marked by injuries and head coach Gareth Taylor's curious propensity to play her out of her best position, in dedicated wide areas, when she was healthy.

Lavelle left England after one season to come back to the NWSL and join the Reign, who traded a first-round draft pick and $200,000 to acquire her NWSL rights in anticipation of her eventual return to the league. Her midsummer arrival coincided with the return of Laura Harvey as Reign head coach, along with loans for Lyon stars Dzsenifer Marozsan and Eugenie Le Sommer -- but the Reign were upset by the eventual champions, the Washington Spirit, in the semifinals.

The Reign are among the favorites again this season, Lavelle's first full season with the club. Since her arrival, she is playing the most confident and consistent version of Rose Lavelle to date, both for club and country.

"Freedom" is the operative word for unlocking the best of Lavelle. At her best, she is a human highlight reel, a player who boasts the kind of creativity and vision on the ball that's historically rare among American players. That special quality has been clear since her senior international debut in 2017 on a frigid March day in New Jersey, when she was named player of the match against England. Lavelle is different from her USWNT peers in the best way, and to reach her potential, she requires an artistic license that allows her to try unconventional ideas.

Harvey's plan so far in the 2022 season affords Lavelle the ability to drift out of the traditionally central areas of the No. 10 role and find the game, which includes floating into wider, higher positions. While roaming the final third, Lavelle can then better combine with the Reign's front line thanks to overlapping support from fullback Sofia Huerta. The result is Lavelle not only generating opportunities in higher areas, but finishing them, too.

She increasingly does this for the U.S. national team, too, where head coach Vlatko Andonovski's system encourages Lavelle to exchange places with the No. 9. (Lavelle and Catarina Macario forged a seamless partnership in those roles earlier this year, but Macario tore her ACL last week and will be out for the foreseeable future.)

Lavelle ranks in the top 10 in the NWSL this year (regular season and Challenge Cup combined) for chances created, while her pass percentage in the attacking third is top-three in the league among players with three or more goals, per ESPN Stats & Information. All of that is to be expected from a world-class No. 10, which Lavelle is, and much of it was on display under the blazing summer sun in France three years ago.

Now, at 27 years old, Lavelle is a more complete player in ways both obvious and more discreet. Take her goal on May 29 against San Diego Wave FC as a prominent example. With Huerta standing over a free kick near the corner, Lavelle made a darting, diagonal run toward the near post after losing her marker and buried a diving header for the game's only goal.

"I don't think I'll ever score a goal like that ever again," Lavelle said through her signature laugh. She was being humble, of course: After all, she nearly scored on a great header 10 seconds into the prior match, against the Kansas City Current.

With all the attention paid to her attacking prowess, the most overlooked thing about Lavelle is her defensive ability. Among players with at least three goals, she has the most ball recoveries (94) while her 42 tackles are surpassed by only two players in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information.

She does all of this defensive work in high areas, quickly converting them into opportunities for her team. Even as a No. 10 whose primary role is to create chances and break down defenses, Lavelle carries a significant defensive burden for both the Reign and the USWNT in their three-player midfield formations.

"Rose Lavelle is the best at defending in transition in the world," Andonovski said in September. "There's not a player that transitions as well as she does."

It was an eye-popping statement from the U.S. coach given the number of great, two-way midfielders in the world, from mainstays like France captain Amandine Henry to U.S. teammate Samantha Mewis. It was also an acknowledgment of the progress made by Lavelle in the time since the world first took notice of her.

In this form, she is primed to be a greater force for the U.S. at next summer's World Cup and a focal point in the Americans' quest to three-peat as champions. She also might be piece the Reign need to finally win an elusive NWSL Championship.