As Rose Lavelle settles into new normal, Spirit face biggest week of season

August 16, 2019

By summer-in-Washington standards, it’s actually a fairly pleasant day. But with the black pebbled field turf at Jelleff Recreation Center soaking up every ounce of the sun’s rays, it’s a stifling, sticky afternoon as Rose Lavelle stands at the center of attention of dozens of young girls in soccer shorts and shin guards, looking up to see the newest local hero of the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Team.

The 24-year-old proud Cincinnati native became an unlikely hero among more established names this summer, as her speed and creativity in the midfield served as a spark plug for the U.S. throughout the tournament. But she cemented her name among soccer fans big and small everywhere in the final, with her devastating 25-yard sprint, splitting two Dutch defenders and slamming home the insurance goal that gave the Americans the 2-0 margin by which they’d win.

The Golden Ball, for the tournament’s best player, went to Megan Rapinoe. But the Bronze Ball went to Lavelle, a heady choice and a nod toward her work that didn’t necessarily show up in the box score.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks since the World Cup final, with celebrations on both coasts and media frenzies the likes of which only come along every four years, pending a championship.

“It’s been a busy last month,” she said. “Now I have some time kind of in D.C. more and don’t head off with the national team for a couple more weeks, so I’ve been able to settle a little more.”

That’s meant more time to decompress and do nothing — hers and roommates Mallory Pugh and Andi Sullivan’s favorite activity — in between all of the everything. But there’s lots of work to be done.

This clinic isn’t part of all that, though. It was already arranged by New Balance, who sponsors Lavelle, before the World Cup began. The two-hour event was put on for girls enrolled in nonprofit programs through the D.C. Department of Parks & Recreation and DC Scores. It might have been just another clinic — without a host of interviews to conduct beforehand, without the teenage soccer playing boys loafing around the edge of the field before being shooed away — before “the biggest goal of Rose Lavelle’s life.” But that’s all part of the new normal right now.

Since coming home, she’s had to get past a lingering hamstring injury suffered in France, playing in three games and starting just twice. And while she can impact the game without putting the ball in the back of the net — she won the Golden Ball at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships five years ago, despite not posting a single goal or assist — the club will undoubtedly hope she can do more to fire up an offense that has scored just once in its last three games.

After a good start to the season, the Spirit have dropped five of their last six and have just one win in their last eight contests. They’ve fallen to seventh place in the league, in danger of missing the playoffs without a serious turnaround.

Now, the Spirit are entering, arguably, the biggest week of their season. They travel to Portland to face the first-place Thorns Saturday, return home for a midweek game against fifth-place Utah Wednesday, then turn around and play for the third time in eight days, at Audi Field August 24, in front of what promises to be the largest crowd in franchise history, in a must-win match against last place Orlando.

With nine games left on the schedule, Washington is five points out of a playoff spot, but with a game or two in hand on every team the Spirit are chasing. They’ve also got the momentum of the post-World Cup glow still in their grasp, having sold out the 5,300 seat Maryland SoccerPlex in last weekend’s loss to Chicago. After drawing a club record 7,976 fans in their one appearance at Audi Field last year, the club is set to smash that mark a week from Saturday, with nearly 11,000 tickets already sold (UPDATE: Over 12,000, as of Friday morning).

“It’s definitely been a fun atmosphere to be a part of, and hopefully it just keeps growing and continuing on,” said Lavelle of the big crowds. “I think it’s great now that there’s more people coming out to NWSL games, because I feel like there’s more role models than just national team players.”

Not every athlete sees themselves as such, but that seems to be a strong through line with the USWNT, including Lavelle. She attended a camp run by national team player and fellow Cincinnatian Heather Mitts as a child; now, she runs a camp with Mitts.

“It was so huge for me to see her in person and have somebody that lived in and came from my area to be in this place that I wanted to be in one day,” said Lavelle. “I feel like I always say this — that it’s come full circle, where I’m able to give back to the sport in the same way that it gave to me.”

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