New U.S. Players Poised To Make Big Impact In World Cup

Jun 16, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The U.S. women's soccer team faces off today against Chile in their second game of the Women's World Cup. The USA thumped Thailand 13-nil in their first match. A number of the American players in that game were appearing in their very first World Cup match. As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports from Paris, the team's newest members are poised to make a big impact in what could be a long run for the U.S. squad.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: It's been 20 years since the U.S. beat China on penalty kicks at the 1999 World Cup.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It also means that the USA could win the World Cup on this next kick.

WAMSLEY: It was at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in front of a record crowd and broadcast on ABC. Brandi Chastain stepped up to shoot the penalty.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Goal.

WAMSLEY: It is one of the most famous goals in soccer history, as Chastain ripped off her jersey to celebrate. That team, led by superstars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and, of course, Chastain, is known as the 99ers. They're credited with making the women's game so popular in America that they inspired a generation of girls to follow in their winning footsteps. One of those was Rose Lavelle, who's now a 24-year-old midfielder on the national team. She says one of her earliest memories is from age 8, watching the U.S. lose to Germany in the 2003 World Cup. She was so upset, she threw herself on her bunk bed and cried.

ROSE LAVELLE: I was so sad. But then they came and played in Cincinnati when I was younger, too. And just, like, seeing them play in person - it was when, like, Julie Foudy was on the team and Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly. And I was obsessed with them. And I think from that moment on, I was just like, I want to be where they are one day.

WAMSLEY: And now she is. Lavelle is the sort of player you watch when she's in the game. She looks young and has a slight frame that belies her power, much like the player she emulates, Megan Rapinoe. In the team's rout of Thailand on Tuesday, Lavelle played in her first World Cup match. And she scored twice.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: USA, USA, USA.

WAMSLEY: And she was far from the only rookie to put the ball in the net. Three others did, too, including 21-year-old Mallory Pugh. She's a gifted winger who many see as the future of the team. Another rookie here is 25-year-old Lindsey Horan. When Horan graduated from high school in Colorado, she turned down a scholarship to play at the University of North Carolina and instead went straight to the pros. It was an unprecedented move for a female soccer player in the U.S. At age 18, Horan moved to Paris to join the famed soccer club PSG. It was a big adjustment, and she says she had to grow up fast. She played well in France and returned to the U.S. a couple years later to stay in the sights of national team coach Jill Ellis. Now Horan is back in Paris for the World Cup as a key part of the U.S. team, a strong midfielder who can also attack, as she did on Tuesday, scoring a goal on the biggest stage.

LINDSEY HORAN: My dream and goal in life was just to play in a World Cup and be on this team. And now to be here with my teammates in Paris is just the most surreal thing. And scoring a goal in front of my family, in front of so many U.S. fans was just absolutely incredible.

WAMSLEY: The team's victory over Thailand wasn't a surprise. But in the midst of those record-setting goals, Coach Ellis said she had to remind herself of the enormity of the moment for her young rookies.

JILL ELLIS: I mean, it's huge. You know, after the game, you know, Mal had tears in her eyes. And so, you know, as a coach, you kind of - sometimes, when you get caught up in it, you forget these moments are massive moments for these players.

WAMSLEY: And having this next generation take the field and score...

ELLIS: That's what you really want - is their confidence to be peaking. And I think that was a good start for them in terms of that.

WAMSLEY: The rookies join a deep and experienced squad with one mission; to win the cup. If they do, they'll uphold the legacy of the 99ers. And they have a nickname in mind - the 19ers.

Laurel Walmsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.