Strength in numbers: Lavelle, Dunn exemplify depth that set USWNT apart
It was a goal that exemplified the United States‘ dominance in France. Minutes after Megan Rapinoe put the World Cup favorite up a goal, Dutch midfield dynamo Danielle van de Donk stripped Samantha Mewis before urgently surging forward.
Van de Donk had four USWNT players in her rearview and was level with another, a chance rarely afforded to the Netherlands in the showpiece finale, especially with Jill Ellis’ tactical preference for having no fewer than eight behind the ball while nursing a lead.
In one deft motion, Dunn dropped to a knee while a probing leg stripped the ball from Van de Donk and into the path of Mewis, who swiftly found Lavelle loitering in the center circle. From there, one of the tournament’s most technically gifted players went on a dizzying 40-yard run littered with feints and fakes that left central defender Stefanie van der Gragt languishing in positional limbo.
Lavelle’s slick left-footed finish on the edge of the 18-yard box capped a stunning seven-match showing for the United States, and a stellar tournament for arguably the team’s best player in France.
It was a tournament abundant in strong individual performances. Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe matched candid quotes with solid displays. Alex Morgan tallied six goals – but just one since the five-piece versus Thailand – and Tobin Heath set the standard for stepovers and nutmegs. But, as much as the stars left their impression on the World Cup, it was the performances of the supporting cast that showed just how significant the gap is between Ellis’ charges and the rest of the world.
Alyssa Naeher had little to do in net, though the 31-year-old showed up when needed, like in the semifinal against England when she smothered Steph Houghton‘s late attempt at an equalizer from the penalty spot. Becky Sauerbrunn was near faultless in central defense, and midfield lynchpin Julie Ertz was an impenetrable bulwark, either as a No. 6 or as part of a back-five when required by Ellis. Of all these showings, those by Lavelle and Dunn stood out.
A winger with the North Carolina Courage, Dunn was tasked with a crash course in France. A dearth of full-back options insisted that Dunn play at left-back, and she was nearly perfect all tournament long in denying the efforts of wide attackers like Rachel Daly and Kadi Diani. Against the Dutch, Dunn was as good tracking back as she was seeking dangerous positions. In a second half that largely favored the Americans, Dunn was cutting in off the left wing in a manner that would make Manchester City tactical savant Pep Guardiola blush.
Like Dunn, Lavelle is an ankle-breaker of a dribbler who arrived in France as more of a question mark than an inevitable star. The 24-year-old Washington Spirit midfielder was one of 11 World Cup rookies in Ellis’ squad – still the eldest of the 24 teams – and with the gaffer certain to opt for a three-woman midfield, there was always going to be one of Lavelle, Ertz, Mewis, or Lindsey Horan left on the outside looking in.
Lavelle’s displays ensured that she wasn’t the odd one out, and even with a hamstring worry sustained against England that put her participation in the final in question, she was the best player on Sunday in Lyon.
Teams trying to narrow the margins like France, the Netherlands, England, and Sweden all have their own stars. Players like Wendie Renard, Vivianne Miedema, Ellen White, and Kosovare Asllani all highlight the efforts of the aforementioned footballing powers, though what they lack, the United States has in droves.
And that’s depth, exemplified by the consistent showings from Lavelle and Dunn. If Sunday’s finale advertised that the United States remains at the zenith of women’s football, it’s as much about its talismanic demonstrations as the displays of a supporting cast deservedly on the cusp of their own respective stardom.
The rest of the world continues to play catch up.