Rose Lavelle met the future of American soccer. Her name is Rose Lavelle.
Two Roses convened on the field Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds - one a celebrity at age 24 after helping the United States women’s national team to a World Cup title this month, the other a seven-year-old girl who shares a name and a love for soccer with her favorite player.
A National Women’s Soccer League match between the Washington Spirit and the Houston Dash brought the Rose Lavelles together. It’s one of the two big questions facing women’s soccer in the United States: Can the nine-team NWSL become a viable league after two of its predecessors failed? And will the women’s national team players prevail in their lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body and their primary employer, demanding equal pay and an end to what they call institutionalized gender discrimination?
One of those issues will be decided in a courtroom, the other on nights just like this one when an announced sellout crowd of 5,500 fans showed up to watch nine players who played for their countries in the recent World Cup in France. It would have been 10, but Lavelle’s hamstring injury kept her on the bench.
If the crowd was disappointed, it didn’t show. Despite withering heat that pushed the game time back an hour to 8 p.m. and never relented, fans banged drums, waved flags and cheered for Lavelle as she worked with a team trainer before the game. Not even an hour-long lightning delay at halftime dampened the mood. Many fans returned from the safety of their cars to finish watching a game that didn’t end until 11 p.m.
Everywhere you looked there were young girls in the crowd wearing Spirit and national team jerseys. Sometimes it was their dads who bought the merchandise.
Juan Reyes sported a blue and grey “Lavelle” t-shirt bought online moments after she scored in the World Cup final against the Netherlands while his eight-year-old daughter, Sia, admitted her favorite player is actually Alex Morgan, the long-time United States national team star who plays for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride.
This was their first Spirit game, a short drive from their home in Montgomery Village. Sia is playing club soccer for the first time this year. On the drive up father and daughter even talked about the pay disparity issue.
“The boys weren’t even chosen for the World Cup!” Sia Reyes said. “And they still get more money.”
“It’s a very important subject and it’s a great way to broach that subject,” Juan Reyes said. “We want to come out and support the league. Buy the shirts, get the hats, get the interest going.”
Lavelle will be the Spirit’s star attraction when she returns. A relative unknown to casual fans before the World Cup began in June, Lavelle became a household name during it. She scored a goal in the 69th minute of the final against the Netherlands to give the United States a 2-0 lead. That ripper of a left-footed shot, after an electric run from just inside midfield, ended any hope of an upset and ensured the United States’ fourth World Cup title.
Lavelle scored three goals in the tournament and did wonderful work as a central midfielder. At 5-foot-4, she’s not an imposing physical presence. She wins with exquisite skill and footwork and by thinking a few steps ahead of most everyone else on the field. That style of play quickly turned her into a fan favorite.
On Thursday, Lavelle was honored at halftime of an MLS game in her hometown of Cincinnati. On Friday, hundreds packed downtown Fountain Square to celebrate her achievement and she received a key to the city and the day named in her honor. It’s been a whirlwind since returning from France a World Cup champion.
Sitting on a blanket with her parents on the grassy hill behind one of the SoccerPlex nets, seven-year-old Rose Lavelle was entranced. She wore a red and black striped Spirit jersey with her name stitched on the back. It didn’t matter that the other Rose wasn’t playing.
Asked if she wanted to take part in a postgame ceremony honoring the five Spirit players just back from the World Cup, she beamed.
“Can I?” Rose Lavelle said, not quite believing. Minutes later, after a 2-1 Washington loss, she and her father, Shawn, walked onto the field with a bouquet of flowers in hand to present to the players.
You could be skeptical about Saturday night. The U.S. women’s national team captivated the country in 1999 when it won the World Cup with a roster full of legends, but 20 years later we’re on a third professional league that has made a limited impact in seven seasons.
In a country infused with cynicism, smothered by it, it’s always easier to just assume the worst. Next year the women will make another splash at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But will the sport retreat again until the next World Cup comes around? Will the NWSL struggle to draw crowds and television exposure? Will a court victory only create a caste system between the haves on the national team and the have-nots left off it?
The NWSL has already lasted longer than the first two professional women’s soccer leagues combined. After the World Cup, ESPN picked up 14 games to broadcast nationally. Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship. The true test is replicating nights like this in cities across the country, expanding that base of support, not rebuilding it every four years. But the world we inhabit so rarely exists as we’d want it to. And, yes, the cynics are sometimes right.
But see little Rose jump up and down when she’s told she can go onto the field to meet her namesake. Hear her say “I’m a brave girl” when asked if she’ll be nervous. “I didn’t even cry for my flu shot.”
And she will be brave. She will accidentally be called up to hand her flowers to a different player than expected and, for a moment, it looks like the Roses will not meet after all.
The ceremony ends and Big Rose is pulled in different directions, quickly signing a few autographs for the kids on the field before she must attend other duties. Little Rose waits her turn patiently, holding a folded program, expectant, hopeful, as the adults around her fret that a major disappointment is coming. But then Rose Lavelle sees the young girl, smiles broadly and bends to greet her.
“My name is Rose Lavelle,” the child says without hesitation because she is brave.
NBC Sports Washington’s Anna Witte contributed to this story.