Even if — somehow, someway — the United States women’s national team shakes off its uninspired play to win a third consecutive World Cup, U.S. Soccer needs to reevaluate not just how it identifies and develops talent, but what kind of talent it identifies and develops.
The struggles for the Americans thus far are myriad and on full display across the group stage where they scored just four times and won once. The 0-0 effort against Portugal early Tuesday was particularly galling.
There is no lack of athletes on the U.S. side. Size, speed, strength … it’s there in abundance. That includes skill, mostly sublime first touches.
Where once Alex Morgan arrived and mesmerized with her combination of power and technical ability — “Baby Horse” they dubbed her — she is now cloned up and down the roster.
The problem? She is cloned up and down the roster, when an assortment of talents are needed.
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There are but two players thus far who have shown any consistent creativity, the kind that is needed to establish attacks, unlock the physical prowess of teammates and generate scoring chances.
One is Megan Rapinoe, who as a second-half sub against Portugal at least gave the forwards someone looking to service and pass, not just charge and shoot. Rapinoe, however, is 38 years old and is no longer capable of playing an entire game, especially in the elimination stages of a World Cup.
The other is Rose Lavelle, the slim but gifted midfielder with a canny knack of seeing angles and possibilities before they develop. With Lavelle, the U.S. attack has some semblance of a chance. Without her — she was a second-half sub in the first two matches due to injury — it’s a slog.
The really bad news? She is out for the Sweden game after collecting a second yellow card against Portugal.
Something dramatic will have to change for the Americans to win Sunday morning, let alone the next three games. Even if they do, U.S. Soccer has to work harder and smarter at finding more Rose Lavelle-types in a youth soccer system that, generally speaking, promotes and celebrates Alex Morgan-types.
Lavelle was born in 1995, the best American in that birth year. She’s probably the best American born in all of the 1990s, although Julie Ertz (1992), Crystal Dunn (1992), Sam Mewis (1992) and Lindsey Horan (1994) might wage an argument.
The issue is, when she was a kid, no one thought she was that great.
Make no mistake, Lavelle was a big-time player for her Cincinnati Cup club team. It’s just that she wasn’t considered anything close to the best player in her birth year. She wasn’t on the U-14, U-15 or U-16 national teams. She was recruited to a good University of Wisconsin program, but only because she was ignored by truly elite college teams, such as Stanford, UCLA and North Carolina.
Lavelle is famously slight of frame. Her game is about creativity, not speed and strength. She makes plays happen, not simply barrels through defenders on a back post run.
Her game takes some time to fully identify, let alone appreciate. It wasn’t until she was at Wisconsin that she truly caught the eye of USWNT coach Jill Ellis, who began to prod and push her to take her diet and fitness level more seriously so she could max out her skills.
You wonder who else slipped through the cracks.
Rose Lavelle couldn’t have been the only American born in the 1990s with field vision, anticipation and a clever imagination. Of the millions and millions of girls who grew up playing the sport, she can’t be the only one that can create offense. Yet here we are.
The youth soccer system in this country, of course, is something no one would purposely design. It can be fun. It can be empowering. It also isn’t how you develop a diverse set of players.
It’s a hodgepodge of competing clubs and leagues, where at the elite, national levels — even in middle school — it can cost $20,000 or more in fees and travel cost (not to mention parents with free time). That alone prices out huge swaths of the population.
More acutely, winning is prioritized, because the national, or even local, success of a club’s top team serves as a marketing tool that draws in thousands of lesser players who bolster the bottom line. If the A-team is great, the D and E team rosters are full.
As such, the most physical and physically gifted kids get promoted and thus encouraged. If smashmouth wins, then smashmouth wins. It can produce some hellacious talents. It can also leave them a little one dimensional.
Which in turn can leave an entire national team a little one dimensional.
U.S. Soccer knows it needs to solve this. It’s seen European girls begin to pour into better organized developmental systems. The days of overwhelming the world with lines of athletes is over (not that there weren’t creative American players in the past as well).
Win or lose, this World Cup has pounded reality home.
The Americans have enough Alex Morgans. They need more Rose Lavelles. A lot of them.
They must be out there. U.S. Soccer’s job is to find them.