Rose Lavelle, Undefeated
A couple hours before the U.S. women’s national team’s showdown against France in the quarterfinals of the 2019 World Cup, word began to spread that Lindsey Horan, one of the best midfielders in the world, was being benched by USWNT coach Jill Ellis.
Sure enough, when the starting XI was officially released, Horan’s name was missing. Lining up in its typical 4-3-3 formation, the USWNT deployed a midfield combination of Samantha Mewis, Julie Ertz, and Rose Lavelle — with Ertz parked in the middle as the more defensive-minded player. Horan didn’t come on until the 64th minute, replacing Lavelle as the USWNT tried to protect a 1-0 lead. The U.S. would go on to win a match that could’ve gone either way between two evenly matched teams by a 2-1 scoreline.
Up next for the USWNT is England in the semifinals (available streaming on fuboTV). As Tuesday’s match approaches, the midfield debate rages on. The USWNT can start only three midfielders, but it has four midfielders worthy of selection. Unless Ellis is willing to move Ertz out of the midfield and to the center of the defense or change formations entirely, she’s going to be forced to bench one of her four midfielders.
So, which one should Ellis drop?
There’s no easy answer to that question. There also might not be an entirely wrong one. No matter which three players Ellis selects for the starting XI, the USWNT will trot out the best midfield in the tournament. In that sense, Ellis can’t really lose. She can only pick a winning combination. That might be a luxury for Ellis, but it won’t make her decision any easier.
Based on the way the internet reacted to the starting XI before Friday’s quarterfinal in Paris, most seem to believe that Horan is undroppable, that she’s the USWNT’s best player, and that it’d be pure insanity to leave her on the bench again. But I think there’s an argument to be made that another member of the best midfield in the world must be included in the starting lineup.
I think it’s Rose Lavelle.
I have absolutely nothing against Horan, one of the sport’s best midfielders who can control and dictate a game in a way that so few other players at the position can while providing a dangerous goal-scoring threat. I can’t really find ways to criticize Mewis or Ertz. But to this point in the tournament, even after she submitted an uneven performance against France, Lavelle’s been the engine driving the USWNT’s attack. She’s been its most creative playmaker, its most threatening player from open play, and its most undroppable midfielder.
Dropping her against England probably wouldn’t cost the USWNT a spot in the final. Mewis, Ertz, and Horan are good enough to get the job done. But leaving her on the bench, after everything she has done to this point, would be, in my eyes, a mistake. A team that has struggled so mightily to generate goals from open play can’t afford to bench its best creator who always has a clever pass or a nifty maneuver ready in her arsenal.
So, about Rose Lavelle. This is her at the peak of her powers, unlocking Spain’s defense entirely on her own and setting up Megan Rapinoe for what should’ve been a goal.
It can be tempting to try to compare Lavelle to some of the great No. 10s in the men’s game, but doing so would be an injustice to Lavelle. She’s not women’s soccer’s version of Mesut Ozil or David Silva or anyone else. She’s Rose Lavelle, a maestro with the ball at her feet, a creative playmaker who also happens to be a quite good two-way player, and the one midfielder Ellis can’t drop on Tuesday.
“You guys can see as well I can 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 before the USWNT’s win over Spain in the Round of 16. “She’s actually one of the best players in the air. She’s got a lot of different tools in her tool bag.”
In addition to scoring two goals during the USWNT’s 13-0 bludgeoning of Thailand in its first group stage match, Lavelle has functioned as the USWNT’s chief creator. The assist numbers might not be there, but that’s largely because the USWNT has seldom scored in open play since that Thailand match and Lavelle doesn’t take free kicks or corners. Only three of the USWNT’s nine goals since the opening match have come from open play (one of which was an own goal), and it’s worth noting that Lavelle drew the penalty that Rapinoe buried to send the USWNT past Spain.
Just because she doesn’t have the statistics doesn’t mean she’s been ineffective. Like all creative midfielders who supply the forwards farther up the field, Lavelle can’t control what happens once the ball leaves her feet. She’s completely at the mercy of her teammates’ ability to turn her goal-scoring chances into actual goals.
The play above should’ve resulted in a goal. The play below also should’ve resulted in a goal, but Rapinoe misfired again — in addition to perhaps being offside. Ignore the end result, though, and enjoy the process of Lavelle playing in Rapinoe, this time against Sweden in the USWNT’s final group stage match.
At some point, if Lavelle keeps creating those kinds of chances, the goals should come.
She’s so effective on the ball due to her technical skill and explosiveness after beating the initial defender. It allows her to escape danger and leave defenders trailing in her dust. She has an uncanny ability to dribble out of trouble just at the moment when an opponent appears to be on the cusp of poking the ball free.
She’s clever, technically proficient, and as quick as Arya Stark.
All three qualities enable her to slide past bigger and stronger opponents who close her down thinking they can push her off the ball. Her first touch is usually perfect (which is why it was so surprising to see her struggle with control at times against France).
Notice how she keeps moving. She’s always passing and moving, passing and moving, and so on. She plays with the energy of a kid on Christmas morning.
Again, in the play below, the forward let her down. A better first touch by Alex Morgan would’ve resulted in a scoring opportunity after Lavelle did well to play the pass to feet instead of leading Morgan into space that wasn’t there for the taking.
“She is just such an interesting, neat person, and I think that kind of translates into her game as well,” Horan said of Lavelle, per ESPN. “She’s a very creative player, unique player, and I think those are the players I love playing with the most. She brings so much to this team. She’s just a very dynamic and technical player. She’s crucial in our attack, bringing something else to the plate.”
But it would be a mistake to assume she’s purely an attacking player. She’s actually a better two-way player than you’d think.
As Michael Caley wrote for FiveThirtyEight before the France match, citing Opta data from 2017-19, Lavelle has averaged more tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes (5.70) than both Horan (4.81) and Mewis (3.29). She’s also averaged more progressive passes per 90 minutes (3.42) than Horan (3.28), though Mewis has the edge among the three players (3.67).
It’s her quickness and intelligence that make her a good dispossessor and interceptor. Once she wins the ball back, she can usually launch a counter all on her own using her afterburners.
We saw this against France at the end of the first half when she jacked a throw-in and proceeded to carry the ball until she set up Mewis for one of the USWNT’s 10 shots, fending off Wendie Renard in the process.
Again, Lavelle probably played her worst game of the tournament on Friday. But even in a patchy performance, she demonstrated what makes her so valuable to the team. She’s been the USWNT’s most reliable midfielder through its first five games, which is a worthy accomplishment considering just how stacked the USWNT is at the midfield position.
“I think, honestly, the strength of this team is we have a lot of strengths,” Lavelle said before facing Spain. “I think we’re really deep and we don’t rely on one person to get the job done.”
That might be true. The USWNT doesn’t really have a weakness. If it does, it’s at goalkeeper. But it’s also wrong in the sense that the USWNT has relied on Lavelle more than any other player to create goal-scoring chances from open play. To this point, she’s mostly delivered. If she does get benched, she won’t deserve it — then again, neither did Horan, which is why this debate is so difficult to sort through.
No matter which midfielder Ellis decides to sit, she’ll be criticized. In that sense, she can’t win. I might be clamoring for Lavelle to keep her starting job, but there are others out there pushing for Horan to replace Lavelle after Lavelle’s performance on Friday.
To be quite clear, I’m not entirely sure who I would bench. I’d probably drop Mewis and insert her into the fray at some point in the second half when fresh legs matter, perhaps even pulling Lavelle off if she’s playing more like she did against France than she did against Sweden and Spain. But even then, I can see an argument for dropping Ertz, the most one-dimensional midfielder of the group, even if I wouldn’t do it myself. I can understand why some would want to start Ertz on the backline, which would allow Ellis to deploy a midfield combination of Mewis, Horan, and Lavelle.
Which midfielder should Ellis drop? I don’t know what the best solution to the problem is. I don’t really have a perfect answer to the question.