Cicadas, candy and an old English bulldog: Rose Lavelle’s unusual path to USWNT stardom

Soccer

THE CICADAS HAVE arrived at Rose Lavelle’s woodsy childhood home, surrounding the Cincinnati cul-de-sac in a siren of shrieking and clattering. A doorbell rings and Janet Lavelle, matriarch of the family, answers and eagerly steps outside. She wants to show a squeamish visitor the backyard, once the playground for one of the world’s most exhilarating soccer players, but now the site of an apocalypse.

“Look at this guy,” she says as she points to a cluster of red-eyed creatures on a tree. “My son ate one of these when he was 14. On purpose!

“Seventeen years they waited underground. This is the party.”

Janet admits she used to be afraid of the cicadas, but then she had kids, and they needed to play outside in the summer. So she got over it.

She casually picks up a cicada and holds it in her hand as if it’s a pet.

It’s late May, and Rose Lavelle, the left-footed wonder for the United States Women’s National Team, was just here between jaunts from Manchester City to the Seattle area (and the OL Reign) and eventually to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Now she’s gone. Lavelle is elusive these days, in part because of the breakneck schedule, but also because two years after scoring the tournament-clinching goal in the 2019 World Cup final, she’s still trying to navigate the fame that accompanied it.

She doesn’t particularly care for it. It’s a befuddling dichotomy: Lavelle’s play is so mesmerizing that it demands you watch, yet she prefers the focus elsewhere. Her personality is also … unique. In February, the midfielder tweeted a list of things she’s embarrassed about for no particular reason, and it included using a shopping cart at the grocery store, being shoeless in the airport security line and wearing jeans.

The 2,200-square-foot ranch house where Lavelle grew up is a window into the life of Team USA’s reluctant superstar. Wilma Jean Wrinkles, the family’s 9-year-old English bulldog, is yawning and lazily shuffling from the couch to a leather chair soliciting attention, the antithesis of Lavelle.

Her parents — Janet and Marty — are in the family room, overlooking a vast green yard with tall oaks. Their second-youngest daughter used to live in the yard, kicking soccer balls into a goal that finally rusted away two years ago.

When she was 5, she broke her leg on a swing set out there, but didn’t tell anyone and managed to cover it up for at least two days. She wanted to keep playing.

Janet, who’s from a 12-sibling family with 65 first cousins, says each of her four children is probably “a little goofy.” She’s not sure if that’s nature or nurture. Janet does most of the talking, demonstrating the pet cam/treat feeder that Lavelle uses to engage with Wilma Jean when she’s on the road, mimicking, in a British accent, how her daughter’s teammates at Man City would talk to Wilma Jean over the app. But the conversation keeps floating back to the cicadas. Marty, a quiet, measured man who owns a construction company, mostly listens, slipping in a few deadpans.

“Take as many as you want,” he says of the cicadas.

Like her mom, Lavelle is unnaturally excited about the Brood X cicada invasion of 2021. They stay up past midnight to watch the cicadas emerge, cheering them on as they come out of their shells.

It’s not in the least bit goofy.

THEY HELD AN Olympics watch party last week at Rose Lavelle’s old high school, which doesn’t have a plaque or shrine honoring her — that would be embarrassing. More than 100 girls jammed into the auditorium at Mount Notre Dame and woke up in the middle of the night to watch the match at 4:30 a.m. ET.

Sweden shocked Team USA 3-0, snapping its 44-game unbeaten streak. Afterward, USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara tried to inspire the Americans, who are favored to win gold. She told them they had to be “ruthless.”

Three days later, Lavelle started the onslaught against New Zealand, scoring in the 9th minute in a 6-1 victory. It was Lavelle’s first goal in her first Olympics, and while COVID-19 might have robbed Janet and Marty Lavelle the opportunity to fly to Tokyo and see their daughter play, they take solace in the fact that they had a seat at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in France on July 7, 2019, before the world turned. The day that currently defines Lavelle’s career.

The Goal is so legendary it’s captured in 14 different angles in one YouTube clip. The U.S. was clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Netherlands; the World Cup was still in doubt. There have been many poetic words used to describe Lavelle’s play, but the most apt is probably “magician.” Her feet move so fast it’s as if she’s in a salsa video on fast-forward. Lavelle, perpetually the smallest on the field, maneuvers herself out of tight spaces with grace. The ball found its way through four defenders. Sam Mewis passed to Lavelle at center circle in the 69th minute, and Lavelle glided up the middle to the top of the penalty box. With the stadium on its feet and two Dutch players hounding her, she feinted with her right foot, then fired a rocket with her left. The place erupted.

The kick, from 17 yards out, was so powerful that she left her feet, crashing into a defender. She landed on the ground just as the ball touched the lower corner of the net.

In high school, she filled out one of those athlete-of-the-month questionnaires for a pizza parlor. In the “MOST LIKE TO MEET” question, Lavelle answered: Megan Rapinoe.

Rapinoe was one of the first people to mob her.

“I’d thought of that moment,” Lavelle says. “I thought I’d bawl my eyes out, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it.’ It all felt so … It was obviously fun, but I was shocked at how normal I felt once the whistle blew. I was so, so happy, but I really thought I was going to cry. And I didn’t.

“It sounds so bad, but I always hear people ask me how my life changed after that moment, and I don’t really feel like it did at all. I always felt like after I accomplished this big thing in my life that I’d feel some kind of different. But I just don’t. I think for me it’s less about moments and it’s more about the journey that led me to the big moments.”

That six-second moment, however, cemented her legacy. She was 24 and the future of American women’s soccer. The national team flew home to a parade in New York, and Remy Cherin, Lavelle’s agent, wanted to meet and talk about the future.

Things were about to change, and Cherin wanted to prepare her for it. He’s always thought of Lavelle as more of an eccentric artist than an athlete, never wanting to sacrifice her body of work, or authenticity, for a quick buck tweeting out discount codes 10 times a day. But the window for a female athlete to cash in is narrow, and in the summer of 2019, it was wide open for Lavelle.

Her endorsement money was about to quadruple, but Lavelle didn’t want to deal with it at the time. She just wanted to enjoy the moment with her teammates.

“Cool,” she told Cherin. “Let’s see how things go.”

SHE WAS BORN on Mother’s Day, and, if she’d been a boy — for much of her pregnancy, Janet was certain she was carrying a boy — her name would’ve been Patrick. Instead, she was “Rosie.” She arrived shortly after a tornado warning, which seemed fitting two years later when she was climbing so many things that they had to put the medicines in a lockbox on top of the refrigerator.

She scored her first goal at 5, playing in a co-ed YMCA league game. Lavelle turned to her parents, and twirled her tongue inside her cheek to keep from smiling. She didn’t want to let anyone know how happy she was. The Lavelles didn’t have a clue about soccer then — Marty’s dad, Charles “Red” Lavelle, was a star quarterback for Xavier in the 1940s — but lugged their lawn chairs in the dewy southern Ohio heat to watch the chaos of youth soccer because their daughter seemed motivated.

She’d dribble and stop to wait for the defender to make a move. “Mom, I tricked ’em,” she’d say.

Her interest intensified when she met Neil Bradford, an optimistic Englishman who frequently used the word “brilliant!” loved soccer and relished teaching it to children. Lavelle was 8 when she joined Bradford’s Greater Sycamore Soccer Association team, and all those days of dribbling and juggling in the backyard were paying off.

The first day Joe Wuest started coaching another team in the program, Bradford approached him and said that he had a player who was special, and wanted to see if Wuest could pick her out in the sea of flailing limbs.

“OK,” Wuest told him. “It’s that short little girl. She’s amazing.”

Parents, especially those on a tight schedule, didn’t always love Bradford. If practice was supposed to last an hour and a half, it inevitably would run late because Bradford always had to finish a fun drill that would get the kids excited and last forever. Practices spilled into the night, and the children played to the glow of headlights.

Lavelle says Bradford made her fall in love with soccer. Years later, whenever she’d return to see him, she’d try to thank him and he’d eschew any credit, insisting she got there on her own. Bradford died in 2016 of cancer at the age of 44 and never got to see her play in a World Cup, or the Olympics. But so much of him stayed with her. A few days after his death, she honored him by wearing his No. 8 in a match at Stanford.

“When things aren’t going well or I’m just having a tough time, I go back to why I’m still playing,” Lavelle says. “It’s because it’s always been something so fun that makes me happy.

“I feel like I have him to thank for that.”

THE GOAL, INEXPLICABLY, isn’t even her favorite. The one she loves the most happened 10 years earlier, freshman year of high school. The Mount Notre Dame Cougars were locked in a tie game with undefeated Lakota West in the state tournament. With 25 seconds to go, Lavelle booted the winning score.

It was the only year she got to play with her older sister Nora, a senior.

“She was the first person I got to hug after I scored,” Lavelle says.

In Cincinnati, when someone asks what school you went to, they aren’t referring to college. There’s a deep pride in one’s high school matriculation, especially if it’s a Catholic school. Mount Notre Dame is a private Catholic all-girls school that considers itself a sisterhood, and oftentimes, it literally is. At least 25 of Lavelle’s relatives have attended the school.

Her best friend — outside of Wilma Jean — is her cousin Jodi Folzenlogen, an aspiring veterinarian who’s one month younger and has very little interest in soccer. But Lavelle has many people who could be considered good friends, including Mount Notre Dame’s admissions director, Donna Groene.

Groene used to be her homeroom teacher. She’s part of Lavelle’s small book club that was started during the pandemic, when she was in Europe and homesick. High on their reading list was the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories Collection. Lavelle loved the books in sixth grade and was curious to see if they still held up.

“We made it through the first two books, I think,” she says. “They were a little more boring than I remember. So that was that.”

When Lavelle is in town, she texts Mount Notre Dame athletic director Mark Schenkel, whom she just calls “Schenkel,” and asks if the soccer field is available, and of course it is, because how often does a small private school have a U.S. National Team player running around on its field? Lavelle trains there alone, regardless of the weather, while starstruck students stare at her during class.

A couple of years ago, MND teacher Sally Knoll was giving an exam, and couldn’t figure out why her class was clearly distracted, pointing and whispering. Lavelle was outside training. After class, Knoll took the girls outside to meet Lavelle. “It was just fun because Rose is just Rose; it was no big deal,” Knoll says. “[But] they thought they saw the Beatles.”

Relationships are important to Lavelle. That’s one of the reasons she landed at Wisconsin, a solid program back in the early 2010s but not a North Carolina or Notre Dame. Badgers coach Paula Wilkins was also a youth coach in the Olympic Development Program and noticed that it would take Lavelle a couple of days to get comfortable with her surroundings, the players and coaches, before she really started to play well. By then, most of the would-be recruiters had moved on.

American soccer is based more on physicality than finesse, and Lavelle wasn’t much to look at, 5-foot-2 and maybe 100 pounds. But opponents couldn’t keep up with her.

“Her ability to stop on a dime is a lot like Mia Hamm,” Wilkins says. “As a defender, you’re at full speed trying to keep up with her, and then she just stops and goes in a different direction. That’s really hard for people to deal with.

“It’s not even like speed, but dribbling with the ball, she’s as fast as most players are without a ball. I think that’s where she has an advantage, even at the highest level now. She’s able to negate the physicality of people.”

Wilkins, who’s big on relationships too, figures it was a cosmic thing. Lavelle landed where she was supposed to be. Her first match, freshman year, was a scrimmage against Marquette, which was ranked No. 14. Lavelle had two goals and an assist, and the Badgers beat their in-state rivals 5-1.

“It was like holy s—,” Wilkins says. “I think that’s the first moment maybe she realized or we realized what she could do.”

Wilkins would always wonder if she was hard enough on Lavelle, if she’d done enough to get her to a World Cup, or the Olympics. Nutrition — or lack thereof — was a longtime issue for Lavelle. (Her only demerit in high school came when she brazenly ate a bag of Skittles during class.) So Wilkins would hound her about eating something, particularly something that couldn’t be found in the candy aisle. Lavelle relented and started putting her banana peels on Wilkins’ clipboard. Her last game, she left something else: Her headband.

It all worked out. Lavelle was a three-time All-American, and Wisconsin upped its soccer profile. Lavelle and Wilkins still talk, because of course they do, and it’s clear that Lavelle isn’t that little girl who needed to get comfortable in her surroundings before shining anymore. She doesn’t need validation.

“She’s more than just a player,” Wilkins says. “She’s become part of my family. The relationship and trust I have with her is kind of why I coach.”

INJURIES HAVE DOGGED Lavelle most of her adult life. Soccer is a punishing sport, and you don’t glide through the forest without smashing into a few trees. In June 2017, two months after she scored her first international goal, Lavelle tore a muscle in her left hamstring. She rehabbed, made it back on the field, then tore another hamstring muscle that fall. The hamstring has three muscles, and in early 2018, she tore the last one.

Lavelle was devastated. She was just getting started with the USWNT, and couldn’t even play. But Jill Ellis, the U.S. coach at the time, believed in Lavelle. Even when Lavelle didn’t believe in herself.

She’d jog alone while her teammates practiced.

“I mean, it felt like it was a whole year where all I saw was her jogging around the edge of the field,” Rapinoe says. “And that’s so difficult, especially being around this team, to do.

“Just seeing her grind through that knowing how hard that was … I’m just like, that mother—— is tough as nails inside and out.”

That following spring, three months before the World Cup, Lavelle was injured in a friendly against Australia. The hamstring injuries had consumed her, and the first thing that went through her head was that one of those three muscles along the back of her thigh had failed her again. She thought about France. But it was a foot injury, and was minor, and Lavelle was a go for the World Cup. She scored two goals in the United States’ 13-0 win against Thailand in the first group stage match and drew a penalty kick that Rapinoe converted in a 2-1 victory over Spain in the Round of 16.

But even Lavelle couldn’t have dreamed what would come next.

Longtime USWNT press officer Aaron Heifetz, who was there in Los Angeles when Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off after her World Cup-winning penalty kick in 1999, said Lavelle’s goal was “a moment that transcended” sports.

“Any other player who scores in a World Cup Final with that kind of drama would likely have ridden that goal for way longer than she did, as one should. But that’s just not Rose.”

Lavelle did have a nine-month stint with Man City, but it was a disappointing foray into FA Women’s Super League. She battled injuries, was asked to change positions and saw her playing time diminished, making just three starts. “I think [it] was actually a number of things,” City coach Gareth Taylor says. “The pandemic, the transition across the states wasn’t ideal and she arrived injured. I think we were just starting to see the best of Rose Lavelle toward the end of the season.”

It was a long winter for Lavelle. When soccer wasn’t going well, it fueled her homesickness and the time change made it harder to call her family when she needed a lift. (She has an older brother, John, and two sisters — Nora and Mary).

But Lavelle has no regrets about Europe. She said the adversity made her a better player and teammate, and that it was the best thing she could have done for her career.

Lavelle, 26, will be relied upon heavily as the U.S. aims for its fifth gold at the Olympics. Coach Vlatko Andonovski says he can always count on her doing something special.

“Rose is in that middle generation,” he says. “She was a little bit of the past, the present and the future of this team. Her role is going to grow, not just on the field [but] off the field. She’s one of those players that everybody loves.”

LAVELLE NEVER DID go Hollywood. She went back to Cincinnati and bought a house a mile and a half away from her parents and within eyeshot of her old babysitter’s house. She still hasn’t properly furnished it, and sleeps on a queen mattress with a king frame.

It’s not out of a lack of money; the bloom of the World Cup allowed her endorsements with Nike, Yuengling, American Girl and IcyHot. “I’m lazy,” she says about her relatively empty house. “I still consider it new because I still do not have it furnished.”

The woman who refuses to talk up The Goal, or the Bronze Ball she received for being the third-best player at the World Cup, was, however, incredibly pleased in January when Forward Madison FC, a professional soccer team from her college town, named its team cow after her. Rose Cowbelle.

Sometimes, Rapinoe is still mystified by her teammate. They were boarding a flight recently, and Lavelle was embarrassed and mumbling because the overhead luggage bin was full and she was one of the last ones on the plane.

“She gets embarrassed about all of these little things,” Rapinoe says.

“I think she has a big personality, but she doesn’t have a loud personality. I have a big personality and a loud personality.”

When told of Lavelle’s high-school questionnaire, and the line about wanting to meet her, Rapinoe at first said she was going to give Lavelle grief, then conceded that it was sweet and endearing.

When the World Cup was over in 2019, they stood together on the field, Rapinoe with the Golden Ball honoring the tournament’s top player, and Lavelle with the Bronze Ball. There’s a picture, Rapinoe says, of her pointing to the newbie, telling her that she’s arrived.

“I don’t even think Rose has scratched the surface on how good she will eventually be,” Rapinoe says.

The fact that Lavelle didn’t feel different doesn’t seem all that surprising. She doesn’t want things to change. Wherever soccer takes her, she likes that she can return home, with family members picking her up at the airport, and make a beeline to Skyline Chili and order the usual: four cheese coneys, even though she can only eat three.

She loves that she can work out at her high school, dote over her dog and lapse into the mundanity of Midwestern life.

In late May, with the anticipation of her daughter’s first Olympics high, Janet Lavelle texted a photo of her daughter. It’s classic Rose, slyly grinning and looking away from the camera.

With a giant cicada on her face.

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