By Simon Evans
LYON, France (Reuters) – In a team noted for their power, speed and strength along with tactical discipline, midfielder Rose Lavelle provides the United States women’s side with a refreshing touch of creativity.
Sunday’s World Cup final opponents the Netherlands may be preparing themselves for a bruising game but they will also be well aware of the need to neutralize the attacking verve of the 24-year-old from Ohio.
At five foot four inches (1.63 meters) tall, Lavelle is the smallest member of the American side and her slight frame looks somewhat out of place in a team packed with powerful players.
But the level of worry over the hamstring strain she picked up in Tuesday’s semi-final win over England, when she was replaced in the 65th minute, indicates her importance to Jill Ellis’s team.
Lavelle has had trouble with her hamstrings before but she was quick to brush aside question marks over her fitness.
“I’m good, I’m ready to go. I just didn’t want to be a liability on the field because I do know with muscles anything can happen,” she told reporters on Friday. “So it was a little bit more precautionary.”
That is good news for Ellis who recently described Lavelle as “a joy”.
“You can see what she is capable of doing in terms of the final pass, in terms of being dangerous with the shot, the pass, the separation she can create,” Ellis said after the 2-0 group stage win over Sweden.
Lavelle was outstanding against England, her nutmeg of Millie Bright in the opening minutes, followed by a swift cut inside and fierce shot, instilled fear in the Lionesses defense.
She also led the high pressing as the Americans unleashed their now trademark early blitz but was a constant threat until she was forced out of the game, buzzing around the midfield and quickly stepping up the tempo while also having the poise to deliver precise passes.
Lavelle’s individuality is a throw-back to the era of street footballers rather than over-coached academy products and she acknowledges that much of her skill set was honed in her backyard in Cincinnati.
“It was never anything really scripted, just me in the back yard with a net, playing around and having fun. I feel like those hours in the back yard kind of helped me,” she said.
It is to the credit of Lavelle’s coaches that in a country that can sometimes prioritize team-play at the expense of individual brilliance, her ability to quickly lose a marker and plot a way forward was never knocked out of her.
“It was something that I have always been a smaller player. Growing up I had to figure out a way for them not to be able to touch me or bump me off the ball, so I think it has always been a part of my game and I don’t think there was ever a coach that didn’t approve of that,” she said.
What she had to learn was how to make sure she didn’t take unnecessary risks in dangerous positions.
“Sometimes I would have a conversation with my college coach and she would be like, why are you doing that there? And I would say, that’s part of my game – and the reply would be – but not in our own defensive third.”
While the defending champions are clear favorites in the final, the knockout games have been close and the Dutch are capable of closing down space effectively.
Lavelle says there is no question of the Americans under-estimating their opponents.
“Netherlands is a great team and they are at the top of their game right now,” Lavelle said. “We don’t take them lightly at all. I think it’s going to be tooth-and-nail.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)