LYON, France — Rose Lavelle was sitting in a pizza shop watching the last World Cup final with a bunch of teammates from her amateur summer league team, and she had no doubt in her mind that the United States was going to beat Japan to win its record third title.
“I knew they were going to crush it,” she said.
Four years later, not only is Lavelle poised to play in this World Cup final, on Sunday here against the upstart Netherlands [11 a.m. ET], she’s been the breakthrough player of the tournament for the defending champs.
Clearly, a lot has changed for the 24-year-old from Cincinnati. She can only giggle now — she giggles a lot — thinking about what she thought she knew back then. “I was just a young child,” she said, exaggerating for effect. “Now that I’m in the situation myself, it’s not that easy. When I wasn’t in that situation, I was like, ‘Oh, they got it.’”
Lavelle is an outlier on this U.S. team in more ways than one. She might be its most creative player already. (No offense to Tobin Heath). She was probably its best player in the first half of this week’s 2-1 semifinal win over England, running free through the Lionesses’ midfield, a display she punctuated with a devastating nutmeg of defender Mille Bright.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 2, 2019
“It just happens — I don’t really know how to describe it,” she says of her Heath-esque ability to thread a ball between an unsuspecting foe’s legs. And then she giggles again.
On a team that historically has populated by thoroughbreds — a young Alex Morgan was famously known as Baby Horse — the 5-foot-4 Lavelle stands out as the smallest player on coach Jill Ellis’s 23-woman roster. Yet she’s perhaps its biggest personality at least this side of Megan Rapinoe. Lindsey Horan, her close friend and her roommate here in France, describes her as “one of the most strange girls I know,” but also “the funniest girl I know.”
“I love her,” Horan said. Ellis said the same thing during a press conference a couple of weeks ago. And as one of only eight U.S. players to start all three knockout round games, America is beginning to fall in love with Rose Lavelle, too.
The talent that Lavelle has flashed in France is new to the fans who only tune in during World Cups and Olympics, but has been obvious to those who get paid to notice for years. A few months after watching that World Cup final as a fan, Lavelle joined the USWNT for the tail end of its victory tour. She didn’t play, but the experience was invaluable.
Lavelle won her first cap while she was still in college — a start against England in the 2017 SheBelieves Cup. During the match, eagle-eyed viewers noticed something scrawled on her arm. Later, Lavelle tweeted out a picture: it was a reminder to do her homework.
For all those wondering what was written on my hand during the game, it's just my homework(-: pic.twitter.com/ZVmtj2vZU3
— Rose Lavelle (@roselavelle) April 7, 2017
“It was nice to kind of get my foot in the water and see what it took to be at that level, see what I needed to work on if I was going to stay at that level,” she said. “I think it took me two, three years to feel like I actually was able to compete.”
She’s doing a lot more than just competing now.
“Rose is having a fantastic tournament,” Morgan said on Friday. “She brings something different. She’s obviously very crafty — I tell her every game just to play her game and that’s taking on players, dribbling, finding herself in the pocket.
“She’s a very special player,”Morgan added. “I don’t think you see that kind of player in the U.S. often. She brings something special to this team.”
Ellis values Lavelle to the point where she’s been willing to sit Horan — who many regard as the country’s best player — just to keep her on the field. It seems only an injury would prevent Lavelle from starting against the Dutch on Sunday, a legitimate concern after she limped out of the semi with a sore hamstring. Lavelle insists she’ll be fine.
“I’m good,” she said. “I am ready to go.”
Henry Bushnell contributed reporting
More from Yahoo Sports: