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Rose Lavelle Has the Washington Spirit Ahead of Schedule

HERRIMAN, UT - JUNE 28: Rose Lavelle #10 of Washington Spirit plays the ball defended by Kealia Watt #2 of Chicago Red Stars during a game between Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars at Zions Bank Stadium on June 28, 2020 in Herriman, Utah.

I was in the ninth row behind the goal in Lyon where Rose Lavelle scored in the World Cup final to seal the victory for the U.S. women’s national team. It was, simultaneously, a moment that seemed both inevitable and impossible.

Anyone who had seen Lavelle play in France knew the goal was coming. Even before the hall had hit the back of the neat, we were raising our hands in celebration. But if you had asked me or anyone else in the stands before the tournament who would be the player to put the ice on the World Cup final, I doubt anyone would have picked the then 24-year-old Lavelle.

Her rapid rise from the University of Wisconsin to first overall pick in the NWSL draft to World Cup Bronze Ball winner caught just about everyone by surprise. Everyone, that is, except Lavelle herself, who seems to have always known she would end up on the U.S. Women’s National team.

“I even felt this way when I was a 90-pound freshman in high school and colleges were blowing me off because I was too small,” she told Sports Illustrated. “I always had this desire to get there, and I wanted it so bad that I just willed it to happen.”

On Saturday, Lavelle’s path connected with a loose ball deflected off the hands of Chicago Red Stars’ keeper Allysa Naeher. The ball should have been cleared, with a Red Stars counterattack heading the other way. But no one told Lavelle, who continued her run and intercepted the freely bouncing ball.

As anyone who has watched Lavelle will tell you, she plays with a lot of fun. She moves through the defenses along a path that only she can see. She dances and toys with opponents and celebrates with teammates.

Sitting around our television on Saturday, watching live sports for the first time in forever, my family laughed as we watched Lavelle use her fancy footwork to slip through two defenders.

What made it funny isn’t just the fact that Lavelle was once again making her opponents look silly. It was also because, for what may truly be the first time, it’s clear that Lavelle is now enjoying herself with the Spirit.

Brittany Ghiroli’s recent piece extensively documents the culture problems that plagued the club before Steve Baldwin became majority owner in 2018 and brought in coach Richie Burke. In summary, the 2020 Spirit are a world away from the 2018 Spirit, who went 2-5-17 in Lavelle’s debut season with the club.

Last year saw improvement, as Burke and an infusion of youth carried the Spirit to a 9-8-7 record and the brink of the playoffs. But Lavelle herself played in just six games due to national team responsibilities. Altogether, before Saturday, Lavelle had played in just 17 games in a Washington uniform. Now, at last, the Spirit Squadron is getting a real chance to appreciate its star player. And they have a lot to be excited about.

The 2018 first overall pick, Andi Sullivan, has established herself as a leader and captain anchoring the Spirit midfield. 2019 Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe has been likened to a brick wall. Things are quickly looking up for a Washington side that impressed many with its 2-1 upset over Chicago on Saturday.

Lavelle, the sixth oldest player on a roster whose average age is 23.5, will continue to shoulder the highest expectations. On Saturday, it was clear that she hasn’t quite regained the form she had last summer. When she came out of the game after 64 minutes, she had been blocked one-on-one by Naeher in the 42nd minute and wasted an opportunity in the 53rd minute that came on a silver platter from Jordan DiBiasi’s cross.

The crazy part is, Lavelle can play below her best and still be a transcendent talent who impacts every facet of a game. Washington Spirit fans should be thrilled by what they’re seeing, especially as it’s clear that their star player still has a way to go before she reaches her full potential.

Tonight, the Spirit and Lavelle will face the two-time defending champions North Carolina Courage, 10pm EST on CBS All Access. In their last meeting, Washington captured its first ever win in the head-to-head matchup and snapped a six-game losing streak with two goals in the last 15 minutes of the game.

If Saturday’s win over Chicago signaled that the rebuild was over, tonight’s game is all about the future. The Spirit have a chance to make a statement win against the league’s premier club.

Expect Lavelle to be up to the task.