Make Way for Rose Lavelle

At age 5, she told her parents that a beagle was speaking her name. Puzzled, they listened closer and discovered it was. Now she’s 20, and more and more people are talking about this unpredictable, tenacious, refreshingly unscripted soccer player.
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There are four lakes that surround Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital and home to its flagship university. Two of them are spacious, but only one, Lake Monona, is well known—imbued, for those of a certain generation, with a lingering sadness. Otis Redding’s Beechcraft 18H went down in Monona’s icy waters, in December 1967, as the soul singer was flying in for a concert at The Factory; he was young, only 26, but his death, coming one month after he recorded what is generally considered his greatest song, meant there would be no more bays for him to sit on the docks of. The other lake is Lake Mendota, and close to its shores is the McClimon Track/Soccer Complex, where, on the first Friday evening of October last year, with the wind whipping and wagging its ferocious tail, I took my seat, in a small sea of Badger red, for a women’s soccer match between Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Rose Lavelle photographed on the soccer field at Mount Notre Dame High School on March 31, 2015.
Rose Lavelle photographed on the soccer field at Mount Notre Dame High School on March 31, 2015.

Photograph by Jonathan Willis

Two young boys, around 9 or 10, 11 tops, were huddled together and one of them was intent on pointing something out to the other. “Hey, you see Number 3 out there for the Badgers?” he said in his flat Midwestern voice. “That’s Rose. You gotta respect her. She represents the country.”

Madison may have four lakes, but it only has one Rose Lavelle. She—and the quirky, offbeat, Chipotle-driven world she inhabits and broadcasts via Twitter and Instagram, in which she gets easily perturbed (but not defeated; no, never defeated) by life’s small injustices (“What do you call a hotel without free WiFi??? Annoying. You call it annoying”); heaps praise on service dogs for their nobility; and does a raucous job of relentlessly stirring up anyone and everyone in her orbit—she was the reason I was in town that autumn weekend.

Rose Lavelle on the MND soccer pitch
Rose Lavelle on the MND soccer pitch

Photograph by Jonathan Willis

Rose, who grew up in Cincinnati, is an unabashed calling card for her hometown. A proud graduate of Mount Notre Dame, class of 2013—an all-girls Catholic school that Donnellons, 24 in all from her mother’s side, have attended for years—she obsesses about her English bulldog, Wilma, who answers to about 50 other names of Rose’s creation, including Wilma Jean Wrinkles and Stromboli. Rose claims that Wilma is her best friend, so close they make the same upside-down-U facial expression and even “finish each other’s sandwiches.” They both love shoes (for different reasons) and apple slices, and Wilma appears happy to wear whatever outfit—a handsome black sweater from Jos. A. Bank or a frilly pink dress—Rose and her sister Mary pick out. Rose has done her best to catapult Wilma to early celebrity; she has been mentioned on the Big Ten Network and has appeared on the Badgers Athletics web site.

Rose laughs, perhaps inappropriately at times, at the daily mishaps of others (“I am one of those people who fall down a lot,” her roommate Meghan confides, “and Rose, for some reason, finds it hilarious each and every time”), though no one, it seems, stays miffed at her for long. For someone who puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on herself, this is how she lets off steam. She comes by her occupation as a prankster honestly—her mother and father have been jumping out of the shadows and from behind doorways for as long as she and her siblings can remember. She is a sprightly free spirit who embraces life and is willing to do whatever she can, or has to, to make sure you do too, provided your skin is not too thin. The third of four children of Marty and Janet Lavelle—a profoundly married couple who are low-key and yet can become highly excitable, and who have passed their love of the ’Nati and Skyline Chili and Graeter’s and Montgomery Inn (the original) on to their children—Rose is, in the view of many, a rising star in the world of American soccer.

“What’s unique about Rose Lavelle—and there are many things unique about Rose, actually—is that we have never had a player like her on the senior United States Women’s National Team.” Even though Rose is not on that team—at least not yet—that is a pretty bold statement. Yet the person making it is April Heinrichs, the technical director for U.S. Women’s National Teams, who captained the squad that won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, coached the full team to an Olympic gold medal in 2004, and was the first female player inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. “Rose’s game oozes skill and sophistication,” she said. “She not only has exquisite feet, but a uniquely outstanding left foot. She has an ability to manage the ball with both feet and receive the ball in ways that most players do not.”

How does U-20 #USWNT midfielder Rose Lavelle prepare for training? Take a look…

A video posted by U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) on

Heinrichs had never seen her play until November 2012, at an Olympic Development Program (ODP) inter-regional camp in Florida—a camp that Rose almost didn’t attend because she had already committed to Wisconsin. “The first thing I noticed was her playing with the ball, by herself, and it was apparent to me that in the course of her young life she had mastered the ball in ways that many of her peers have not. Such control meant an inordinate time spent with the ball, and it meant a passion and love for the game. Everyone says they love the game, and they’re passionate, but when a player can master the ball in the way Rose Lavelle can, you always give the player who does that an extra amount of credit, as opposed to the player who has God-given talents.”

While not blessed with exceptional speed, Heinrichs said, “Rose changes direction, with and without the ball, as well as anyone. Which is one of the more important physical attributes to be successful in the game today. A player like Rose is able to separate herself by her technical and tactical ability to solve problems, with both feet and with her head up. In many ways, she reminds me of Wayne Gretzky on ice. Gretzky was so fluid, he could transition from attacking to defending so effortlessly. His creativity was undeniably there, head and shoulders above everybody else. That’s how Rose is. Her ability to maneuver in and out of pressure, then do it again and play a simple ball, is unbelievable.”

On top of all that are the intangibles, the often elusive, delightfully mysterious Lavellean intangibles that spring from her active soccer brain. “You know, the goal hasn’t moved in a hundred years,” Heinrichs joked, “and most players are going directly to it. With Rose, you can’t be sure what she is going to do, and that is what makes her so dangerous.” And so predictably unpredictable off the field as well.

 

 


 

For the longest time, “Rosie,” as she is still affectionately called by those who surrounded her as she grew up, made an honest, sunup-to-sundown living out of being underestimated. In her own words she was “scrawny,” weighing double-digits forever. Even now, she is “119 pounds of next to nothing,” according to Ryan Alexander, the physiologist for U.S. Women’s youth teams who had come from California to watch the Ohio State match as well.

She may be slight of frame, but, Alexander emphasizes, her fitness level is superb. “In my position, I get data on top of data, and Rose is at, or nearly at, the top of every single category,” he said. “And it’s effortless. She makes it look easy.” What most people don’t realize—and why would they?—is the “very high stress level she carries around” in her drive to be at the top of her game. “You don’t see many players like Rose in the women’s game,” Alexander told me. “From a purely physical standpoint, female players do not move in the way she moves. She is incredibly agile.”

One hears a lot about the beep test (a grueling physical challenge that estimates an athlete’s maximum level of aerobic conditioning) and how much players dread it. Rose not only looks forward to it, she “crushes it,” Alexander said, and aspires to do better each time she takes it. “Coaches talk about Rose as the model they want players to aspire to.”

Her days of being underestimated, it’s fair to say, appear to be over. Opposing coaches carefully design ways to stop her, or at least minimize her opportunities to affect the ultimate outcome of a match. Last summer, she played every minute of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada, mainly as the team’s center midfielder, the player who orchestrates the action, the conductor who makes the train go this way and that, who provides such exquisite service to her teammates you would think she is serving them breakfast in bed—at a five-star hotel no less. (In the middle of broadcasting one of Wisconsin’s matches last fall, Danielle Slaton, who played on the full national team for a number of years, spontaneously announced, “I wish I were younger so I could play with her.”) At the qualifying tournament for the U-20 World Cup, held in January 2014 in the Cayman Islands and which the U.S. won, Rose received the Golden Ball for Best Player, despite having no tangible assists or goals to show for it.

On the field she has become a stealth factor, or perhaps the X factor, a notion that would at once please her and make her uncomfortable: It would please her because she loves Xavier basketball as much as life itself; it would make her uncomfortable because the limelight runs counter to her nature. She gets her greatest satisfaction by helping others to shine. Somehow, some way, she knows—because even at the tender age of 20 (which she just turned in mid-May), she is a deeply intuitive, old soul (with an old-fashioned first name). She already knows that fame is fleeting and relationships last a lifetime.

 


 

Rose and I were supposed to meet before the Ohio State game—she was going to swing by my hotel on her trusty scooter, her preferred method for navigating the streets of Madison, ski goggles in place, as if she were Amelia Earhart on a reconnaissance mission—but a delayed flight made that impossible. So I wound up driving to the game with her parents and getting my first glimpse of Rose warming up in a parka—a ballet dancer, and a whirling dervish, and a spinning top, all tangled up in one graceful, lithe figure, ball at her feet, playing a game she cherishes beyond all reason, running against the wind.

I have followed women’s soccer since the 1999 World Cup, culminating in the championship match at the Rose Bowl, where more than 90,000 people turned out on a sweltering July day to watch the U.S. defeat China on penalty kicks—a day that not only was an epochal moment for the sport, but arguably for all of women’s sports. I have a daughter, two years older than Rose; she had begun playing soccer around that time and we watched that match together, as did millions of others. If you were a parent and you had a daughter, a daughter you were bringing up to believe she was capable of doing anything she set her mind to, then that game was a metaphor, a powerful example to your child on so many levels of what was possible in her life, regardless of whether that life would involve sports.

Six months after that match, April Heinrichs was named the head coach of the USWNT, and it would fall to her to get the team ready to compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Heinrichs had been the coach at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where I live and taught for many years, and I was hopeful she would afford me the kind of access I needed to write an in-depth article about her and the team. She did, enabling me to have one of the most satisfying reporting experiences of my life. And so it was Heinrichs I e-mailed, in late August, asking if she could introduce me to Rose. She wrote back almost instantly, copying Rose and referring to her as “my little friend.” What I found curious was that Heinrichs never pressed me about why I was particularly interested in Rose, almost as if she had been waiting to hear from me.

As it happens, Rose’s best friend, Wilma, was in trouble at the time—and so, to some degree, was Rose, but for a different reason, one I didn’t learn the extent of until I got to Madison—and I did my small part to help Wilma out. Rose had been lighting up Twitter with her pleas to #FreeWilma, who apparently had been sequestered in the Lavelle house. Why was not immediately clear. One thing I learned about Rose long before we met in person: Once she gets focused on something, whatever that something might be, she is like a terrier chewing on your leg. She will pursue it and channel her considerable energy toward it and not let up. (One of her better-known hashtags is: #cantstopwontstop.) It is part of what makes her so good at what she does. She has no trouble grasping the importance of doing something for 10,000 hours in order to be supremely successful (the phenomenon Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers). She often wants to continue watching film with her coaches long after they are ready to stop, intent on learning from her mistakes.

Just before I e-mailed Rose, I spoke to her mother by phone. I told her why I was calling and I asked what Wilma had done. “She peed on our bed,” Janet said. “That’s my kennel, so she will need to stay in her own for a while.”

 


 

“Hi, Jonathan, this is Rose. I wanted to thank you for putting in a good word for Wilma.”

Her voice was quiet and flat, almost entirely devoid of affect, much like her countenance in the short video U.S. Soccer had released about her and Wilma over the summer, “Rose Lavelle’s Best Friend”—the first glimpse I had had of her off the field. Throughout, she is deadpan, barely cracking a smile, displaying one of the driest wits I had encountered in quite some time.

She seemed shy and somewhat wary of attention, so I stayed on only long enough to let her know how I knew April and make a loose plan and to learn she was taking, along with sociology and statistics, a course in ballroom dancing, which made her nervous in that she wasn’t sure she could work up the nerve to ask someone to be her partner. I asked if it occurred to her that someone might ask her, and she said, no, actually, it had not. When I told her how much I had enjoyed watching her play so far, her voice changed in register. “Why, thaaaank you,” she practically sang out. It was genuine and natural, and I could tell it meant a lot. How much it meant, I would get a better idea of when I got to Madison.

 


 

I had a list in my pocket of good places to eat, but who was I kidding? I knew all along we would wind up at Chipotle, her second home, at 658 State Street. She goes there nearly every day and never tires of it. For the longest time, before she came to college, she ate an overstuffed baked potato, night after night, until one day she had had her fill. Then it was a Tony’s frozen pizza (“just cheese”) and she focused on that until, after six weeks, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Then a steady diet of PB and J. “I would get hooked on something and instead of adding it to my repertoire, I would just eat it until I got sick of it,” she said. “My mom hated that.” Yes, she did, but this sort of single-minded culinary trail that Rose had blazed was also oddly comforting to Janet because it was so unsurprising—the only thing about Rose that is. (She has probably eaten more apple slices than any kid in the country at her age, and nearly all of them have been sliced for her by her mother. In fact, she had come to school last fall with her own apple slicer and cutting board, but it remained unopened. Rose is very adept at persuading other people to do things for her, things you would think no one would agree to, but, sure enough, they do.) “I swear,” Janet says, “that she is the same kid she was at five weeks. To this day, I don’t know how we ever got out of diapers.”

I decided to eat what she was eating and asked her to order for me.

“I would like a Burrito Bowl. Brown rice. Chicken. Cheese. Lettuce. Sour Cream. Mild Salsa. Chips. Same for him. And a lid.”

Very routine. No nonsense. Straight face. No smile. (And yet there was, a faint trace of one, just coming from a different place—her eyes.) This was what she required, including the lid. Even though we were eating there, Rose knew she would be taking some of it with her, to savor for later.

I told her I was surprised they didn’t say, “Hey, Rose, do you want the usual?” Or that she didn’t have her own table.

“I know,” she said. “I come here nearly every day. You’d think they would know me by now.” She said it out of puzzlement, perhaps even a twinge of sadness that it wasn’t more personal—as it is for her family back home when they go to the “Monty Inn” or Silverton Café, where her parents met playing foosball, or Chicken on the Run, where Marty’s softball jersey was on display for the longest time—and not out of any thinking on her part that someone would know that she played soccer for the Badgers or, for that matter, the United States. But then Rose does not enjoy being singled out. It makes her uncomfortable. If she has a library book out for much longer than she should, she is more likely to hold onto it than be “that person” who has to come in and be humiliated into paying a fine. If she wears the same thing two days in a row, which she does often at school, she strongly considers not going to class out of worry someone may notice. If she gets to a class late, she may very well sit outside and try hard to listen, as opposed to entering late and being conspicuous.

Mischief, though, and testing limits—now that is something else. When she was at Mount Notre Dame she defied the rules and openly ate Skittles in Donna Groene’s religion class, and yet, for the life of her, still feels the punishment—a couple of demerits—didn’t fit the crime. She and her cousin Jodi—her best human friend, whom she considers “a genius, yet weird, like me,” and who couldn’t care less about sports (which is actually a relief to Rose)—had points taken off a paper they had collaborated on due to disruptive behavior. Rose was issued a Conduct Slip by Sister Paula Marie for “talking all during Mass.” There are other examples, but all of these occurrences—in retrospect, if not at the time—are looked upon as Rose merely being Rose. On a recruiting visit to Wisconsin, Paula Wilkins, her current coach, left the room for a moment, only to return and find Rose not there. Actually, she was there, she was just hiding under the table. This was something Rose and her sister Mary would do to neighbors too. A woman they addressed as “Miss Jane” lived nearby; the sisters would wait until Jane’s husband, Frank, was not home, and then sneak in through the garage and give her a fright in the kitchen. She couldn’t have minded too much because she never stopped giving them Fruit Roll-Ups.

Her most influential soccer coach growing up, an Englishman named Neil Bradford, told me he had never coached anyone cheekier than Rosie—or, for that matter, better. To him, she was like Ryan Giggs, of Manchester United, moving effortlessly down the flanks. To this day, he still can’t figure out how, if they went to a tournament and were staying at a hotel, she could manage to be everywhere at once, anywhere you looked.

She plays like that. There one second, gone the next.

 


 

We have finished our lunch and are now sitting across from each other in a quiet spot at the Campus Inn. A steady autumn rain is falling outside. Rose has on a black Columbia fleece and is sitting on the same couch her parents had sat on hours earlier when I spoke with them. We are getting together later than I had hoped. I hadn’t yet figured out that Rose, like Wilma, does things when she is ready to—a trait she shares with her father, Marty, along with a certain stubbornness, though his can last much longer. Rose will simply stop participating in any sort of discussion with him the moment she stops caring about it. “I am done here,” she will say. She digs in, but he digs in deeper. An Irish struggle, playing itself out in an ethnic town. “I remember one time I was driving,” Rose recalled, “and there is a police officer driving in the next lane, but I am in the passing lane, driving exactly at the speed limit, and my dad is telling me I am not respecting the officer by moving past him. To this day, I still can’t figure that one out.” Just as Marty can’t figure out why he has to ask Rose more than once to take the trash out. He never has that trouble with Mary. There are things he wants to say at times, Janet told me, with Marty sitting right next to her, but she is the family mediator and prevents him from doing so.

Over the course of reporting this story, I have learned many oddly endearing things about the Lavelles. Like how superstitious the family is, knocking on wood every chance they get. If their beloved XU is playing on television and they are playing well, wherever you are in the house at that moment is where you have to stay, since any change could shift the team’s fortunes. (Marty has been going to home basketball games for more than 25 years, and nearly always one of the kids—John, the oldest, or Nora, or Rose, or Mary—goes with him; his father, Charles “Red” Lavelle, played quarterback there in the early ’40s, when Xavier still played football.) When all the kids were home and doing their homework, they could count on getting a CLOSE GAME ALERT, which meant they could all go to the family room and watch the last five minutes of a game. Perhaps the hardest thing for Marty about Rose’s being so far from home and traveling the world these last few years is her lamentable absence from that particular room with its red wood-burning fireplace, where the crucible of their father-daughter relationship was formed, watching every sporting event imaginable and discussing it for hours afterward.

 


 

“When you think about this game…”

“Soccer,” she breaks in softly.

“….what exactly do you see in your mind’s eye?”

“Something I love and want to do as long as I can.”

It sounds simple enough, this aspiration of hers, and she states it plainly, with resolution, but of course it is far from that, at least on the level she intends. Rose is just young enough that the Women’s World Cup of 1999 was not a defining moment for her; the United States’ semifinal loss to Germany in 2003, however, was. (Unlike the U-20 World Cup, which occurs every two years, the World Cup for the full national team, both women’s and men’s, takes place once in every four.) She was 8 and just beginning to get serious about soccer. “I remember going to my room crying, climbing onto the top bunk bed, pulling up the covers, and telling my mother that I wanted to be left alone.” She also remembers thinking that she would do whatever it took to be in that position one day—to wear the uniform of her country and be part of that event and the Olympics. (In truth, though, it has only been in the last few years that she’s fully given herself over to all she has to do in terms of nutrition, weight lifting, and how to take care of herself in between games, among other factors.)

Doesn’t everyone look back at their life and wonder, What if I had done this, or what if I hadn’t gone there, or…? Rose Lavelle is no different. When she was 8, the first competitive soccer club she wanted to play on, Sycamore Arsenal, “turned her away,” as Neil Bradford recalled. She was then going to play for the Riverhawks, but that group never quite got it together. “I am sooooo thankful for that,” Rose told me, “because I wound up being with Neil. I don’t even want to think about it if I hadn’t.” (Knock on wood.)

She started off playing with a group of girls who were a year older and then playing for a more high-level team Bradford was coaching, Lakota Lightning. “He is the one who made it so fun for me,” she said. “He taught me foot skills and the importance of juggling. I would spend hours in my backyard juggling and trying out all these tricks I would watch on YouTube and he would keep challenging me to do more and more.” (As it happens, things come full circle: Today, on YouTube, in a segment called “Lavelle Goes Back to the Future” one sees Rose, at 11 and 18, demonstrating some of these things, including catching the ball on the back of her neck and doing push-ups with it resting there.)

If the happy circumstance of being coached by Bradford was one turning point for Rose, another took place in the summer of 2010, when Paula Wilkins, the Wisconsin coach, saw her at a regional camp for ODP hopefuls in DeKalb, Illinois. An ODP colleague, Jeff Pill, had said that even though she was not the kind of player he knew Paula favored—big and strong—she needed to go over to Field 2 and see Rose for herself. “When players are 13 and 14,” Pill told me, “they usually stand out because they can get by with either their athleticism or their size, but as they get older they will need other things. They will need to have creative ideas of how to solve the problem. It was very apparent to me that Rose had a lot of those.”

What Wilkins and Pill did not know was that Rose almost didn’t come to DeKalb. The previous summer, the first time she would have been eligible to make a regional team, she wanted to quit ODP altogether. Told her mother she hated it, she wasn’t going, she was done. Maybe she was testing Janet. Or herself. It didn’t matter. In the Lavelle household, if you had committed to something and the check had cleared, you were doing it. End of story. Neil Bradford had experienced that. One time he wanted Rose to participate in a 3v3 soccer tournament, but Marty let him know, gently but firmly, that Rose would be back out on the pitch as soon as basketball was over. (To this day, it saddens Marty a little bit that Rose gave up basketball—she played in ninth grade at MND—because he loves the game so much and was convinced that Rose could become a great point guard. Rose disagrees, but there is no changing Marty’s mind about this, as she well knows.)

“The truth is,” she said, her blue eyes staring at me in a level gaze, “I didn’t want to go because, at the back of my mind, I was scared I wouldn’t make it. Up to that point, I had never really failed at anything, and I didn’t want to start. I had never been cut. I didn’t want to come home and say I failed at something I wanted to succeed at.”

So off she went to DeKalb. And she didn’t make it—“I didn’t even make the pool,” she remembers. Instead she sat by herself on the field and cried, and Janet thought, OK, she fulfilled her end of the bargain, she doesn’t have to keep coming. But on the long ride home, Rose informed her that she would be coming back the following summer. And that is when Jeff Pill saw her. “I wanted to go back and ‘redeem myself,’ ” Rose said. “I didn’t want to end on that note. I wouldn’t say I was holding back because I was afraid to fail. I think I was more nervous and that might have contributed to my not performing to the best of my ability.”

 


 

That was five years ago. And yet what was happening with her now bore some haunting similarities. Soccer, over the past seven weeks, had not been fun for her, not at all. She was exhausted (which is one of the reasons Ryan Alexander had come to Madison), and she felt isolated. There had been days, she told me, when “I will get in sad moods and won’t be able to talk or smile if my life depended on it.”

It’s not that she wasn’t glad she had scored, from more than 30 yards out, a tremendous, booming goal off a free kick to help her team beat Ohio State 2–0 the night before, a victory made all the sweeter to Rose because the school had shown little interest in seriously recruiting her. More memorable than the goal—which hit high up on the frame and then shot straight down like a rocket—was her reaction to it, or lack of one. She seemed both subdued and stunned, almost as if she wanted to disavow it had even happened, as if it were a mistake of some kind, an accident. In today’s soccer world, such a strike is called a Golazo. Going, going, gone. See ya later. The Buckeye goalie never stood a chance.

I was sitting with her mother when it happened. Janet, no stranger to testing limits herself, had just been admonished by Wisconsin officials (again) for ringing her cowbell, which she mainly does to reduce the tension and anxiety Rose’s games create in her. She seemed a bit stunned herself by the goal; but more than stunned, she was relieved. She was deeply concerned that Rose had not been herself since returning from the U-20 World Cup in Canada in mid-August—where the U.S. went to overtime and penalty kicks before losing in the quarterfinals to North Korea—and going immediately back to school, where she was expected to join her college team right away. “I am not even sure I should be telling you this, but you’re here, and she scores, and hey, maybe you should come to all the games from now on,” Janet said, knocking on wood.

 


 

“It was awful,” Rose said quietly, rolling back the clock to that evening in Toronto, August 16, 2014. “It sucked. We trained for two years and I feel as if I let everyone down. Not just my teammates, but Frenchie [her coach, Michelle French], the other coaches, the equipment manager, Ryan, April, the person who makes our travel plans, Cincinnati United [the club she had played for]. Everyone. And my country. That game against North Korea I feel was my fault. I feel guilty. I missed my penalty kick, and if I hadn’t given the ball away earlier we wouldn’t have even been in that position, we wouldn’t have gone to overtime.”

“You weren’t the only one to miss your kick,” I said, realizing instantly that was of little solace. Two other players had missed as well, including Lindsey Horan, the first American woman player to forego a college scholarship and play professionally in Europe. It didn’t matter to Rose. She had missed hers and, perfectionist that she is, was tormented by it.

It wasn’t just that game and the sinking feeling that their mission to win a World Cup had come up short. The U-20s are generally viewed as the group from which the next generation of players for the full team will come; 21 players, a number that has been whittled down from hundreds more, with their own dreams, articulated or not, of where they eventually see themselves and what they are trying so hard to prove. No, it was the whole experience, from early 2013 on—an experience that Rose had fully invested herself in, physically, mentally, and emotionally—that she was mourning, grieving over really. She didn’t expect anyone else to understand, other than those who had gone through it with her, especially the ones she had grown closest to: Cari Roccaro (from Notre Dame, who had been on the winning 2012 U-20 team), Horan, and Katelyn Rowland, her “homie” who danced and sang with her everywhere they went. Of course they weren’t thrilled when Rose locked them out of the room, forcing them to shiver on the balcony on a Canadian summer evening. Or when she insisted on loudly playing with her Webkinz on the computer as they were trying to nap. No matter how many times they reminded her she was well beyond the age that most kids played with Webkinz (little figures that Rose occasionally tucks under the sheets, along with her soccer cleats), she kept on keeping on.

She has a permanent, uninhibited relationship with childhood—a sublime understanding of how precious it is—that is engaging and touching. But lest you think that this relationship is one-sided, that Rose is the constant instigator, her cohort exacted their own form of revenge, procuring the one item she is most protective—and least self-conscious—about: Her blankie, which is gray now and has stood the test of time, which she knew was not in its normal spot the moment she came into the room, and which she proceeded to launch a full-scale investigation to find. Yes, they were there to play soccer for their country and they were fully committed to doing so. But this form of tribal bonding is what will remain for them long after they forget the details and scores of the games they played.

“Will I ever have the chance to play with them again?” she asked as she sat sunken on the couch at the Campus Inn. Instead of being focused primarily on herself, on whether she had damaged her chances of being selected again, she was more concerned with the deep camaraderie they had forged. That is not to suggest Rose is entirely selfless; you can’t be as determined and ambitious and driven as she is and fit credibly into that category. But the high regard in which she is held by her teammates and coaches is impressive. “How many people do you know,” April Heinrichs asked me, “who can make 10 people smile every day? Who can bring such light into other people’s lives? Rose is a unique soul.”

In every category that is used today to measure and evaluate players, Rose Lavelle received one of the highest ratings of all the U.S. players who played at the U-20 World Cup. “If not the highest,” Heinrichs said.

 


 

The next time I saw Rose was in Cincinnati, in late December. It had been years since I had been there, and Janet wanted to make sure that I knew where “The Cut in the Hill” was, that spot on I-75 where downtown opens out and reveals itself in a wide shot. The real reason all the Lavelles love the Cut is because it not only means they are almost home, but each of them loves to guess exactly how long it will take to get there.

Rose, her cousin Jodi, and her sister Mary were waiting for me at Skyline Chili in Kenwood. Rose had just come from her daily workout with Reneé Balconi—who is far, far more than a personal trainer to her and one of the main reasons Rose was feeling better, both physically and emotionally, than when I had seen her in Madison. The Badgers had won the Big Ten Tournament, had earned a No. 4 seed to the NCAA Tournament, but had fallen to the University of Central Florida in the second round. Rose had gone from being Big Ten Freshman of the Year to becoming a second-team All-American as a sophomore. When I congratulated her on that, she told me, quietly but emphatically, “There is no way I deserved it.” In any case, it was what it was. As was this: Just before Thanksgiving, she was named one of five nominees for U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Athlete of the Year—an award eventually won by Morgan Brian, two years older than Rose and the only member of the USWNT going to the World Cup in Canada this month who is of college age.

After lunch, we drove across the street to St. Vincent Ferrer, where Rose had gone to school through eighth grade, and, as Carrie Underwood sang on the car radio, she lovingly recalled playing four square outside. We went on to Mount Notre Dame, where Rose and Jodi hoped to see Donna Groene, now the director of admissions. She wasn’t there, but they managed to persuade the head of school to call her on the phone, and they wrote her a dunning note:

Hey Mrs. Groene,

Stop trying to avoid us

—Rose & Jodi (& kinda Mary)

P.S. ALSO please put my ceramic shoe on display

Rose had made a Nike shoe for Mrs. Groene and she was disappointed it wasn’t on her desk. (By the time I saw Donna Groene three days later, it was.)

Rose and I walked the Grooms Road soccer fields where she had scored her first goal in high school and where her Cincinnati United Premier team held practice. But of all the things we did that week, including watching her train at Balconi Top Training and being reminded, as I sat on the floor talking with Reneé Balconi, of how crucial it can be—and how rare it often is—to have someone in your life other than your family care about you in every conceivable way, the most significant one was the last one.

A fund-raiser was being held that Friday evening for Neil Bradford, whose cancer had returned in his early forties, and many of his players were going to be at the GameTime Training Center, in Fairfield, to play pickup games in his honor. I had spoken with Bradford on the phone earlier in the autumn and he said he would come early so that the three of us could sit together and talk before the evening began. It was, for both of them, an emotional reunion. There had been some tension five or six years earlier when Rose chose not to go with Bradford to a different club, and he was hurt. But that was all in the past now, and Bradford blamed himself for what had transpired (even though he is still convinced that had Rose followed him to the rival club, “the right people” would have been pushing for her and she would have been on a youth national team earlier). They hadn’t seen each other for quite some time, and Rose wanted him to know, to reassure him perhaps, that she could have never gotten to where she was without him. Never.

Bradford disagreed. “Rosie’s just a natural, the Queen of Lightning I called her. Any good coach could have gotten her to where she needed to be.”

“I always say,” Rose broke in, “that I don’t think I ever would be as technical if you had not been my coach. You made it very fun for me. You made me love it. I remember you challenging me to do 100 juggles with my feet, and everybody else to do 30 with any part of their body, and me thinking, What?

“It’s because I knew you could do it,” he said. “Just as I know that if you continue to get stronger, you will make the full team. I am certain of it.”

“I’ll try to get there for you,” she said softly, her eyes a little moist.

When I had gone by the house to pick Rose up earlier, she was still packing. She was leaving for a U-23 camp in Carson, California, early the next morning, where she would be the youngest player. She had put the angst and sadness of last summer behind her and was eagerly looking forward to taking the next step, toward the full national team and a professional career, and seeing her homie again, Katelyn Rowland. As I waited for her, I stood for several minutes in the family room, staring out at the huge yard, filled with oak trees, where coyotes and foxes and deer, even a wild turkey, pass through with some regularity. Rose’s big soccer net is still out there, and it wasn’t hard, in the late afternoon sun, to envision her out there too, kicking ball after ball into it, dribbling this way and that, juggling for hours, in all seasons, feeling inestimable joy.

Editorial update: Having traveled to Spain with the U-23s in February to play in the La Manga Tournament, and to Norway in May for the Four Nations Tournament, Rose will be playing this summer for the Seattle Sounders Women of the W-League.

For more on Rose Lavelle, listen to our conversation with Jonathan Coleman:

Click below to hear Jonathan Coleman read excerpts from his profile:

 


Editor’s note: Rose Lavelle has been given her first call-up to the United States Women’s National Team, which won the World Cup this past summer.  She will train with the team and be available for four matches during the month of December. For further info, go to ussoccer.com

Lavelle was the first player selected in the National Women’s Soccer League draft on January 12, 2017, in Los Angeles. She will play for the Boston Breakers. She will also be training with the United States Women’s National Team from Jan. 13-23 in Carson, California. For further info, go to nwslsoccer.com and ussoccer.com

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