Rose Lavelle was, in no uncertain terms, the big "winner" from the U.S. national team's victories over Russia in April.
Earning just her third and fourth caps, the Boston Breakers rookie shook off any tentativeness and played with sheer audacity. As the U.S. cruised to a pair of blowout wins in Texas, Lavelle earned plaudits for her creative influence down the right flank.
The Americans' trip to face Sweden on Thursday presented a starkly different scenario. It was Lavelle's first cap away from home, for starters. But more importantly, the friendly came against the same team that eliminated the U.S. in the Olympic quarterfinals last summer. The Americans, in fact, had been winless in their past four meetings with a Sweden side coached by former U.S. boss Pia Sundhage.
So how did Lavelle respond to the challenge? With yet another game-changing performance.
Three weeks removed from her 22nd birthday, Lavelle continued her international maturation by scoring the 56th-minute winner in the U.S. team's 1-0 triumph in Gothenburg. As U.S. forward Crystal Dunn found space on the ball and accelerated into the final third, Lavelle made her move with an incisive run from the right flank. Collecting Dunn's feed, Lavelle took one touch before burying an angled effort inside the far post.
It was an opportunistic run and finish from Lavelle, who had lamented her final touch in April after an otherwise sterling outing against Russia. While Lavelle found it tougher to impose herself against a team of Sweden's defensive prowess, some of the Americans' most promising moments came courtesy of her vision and skill while drifting inside.
With Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Morgan Brian sidelined (and Carli Lloyd removed at halftime), U.S. coach Jill Ellis put the onus on her younger options to seize the reins — and Lavelle rose to the occasion.
Here are two more thoughts from the Americans' 1-0 win over Sweden:
Defensive depth put to the test
Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Kelley O'Hara remain defensive stalwarts for the U.S., and Julie Ertz is back in the mix after missing the April friendlies because of her wedding and honeymoon.
Those veterans give the U.S. back line a steady foundation. The unit's depth is more of a question mark. Whitney Engen, who started two matches at the Olympics last summer, was cut loose by Ellis in October. Emily Sonnett and Ali Krieger are seemingly being phased out, and April call-up Megan Oyster also was omitted from this roster.
Enter Casey Short, who established herself as a starter at the SheBelieves Cup in March and turned in a strong 90 minutes Thursday. After starting alongside Sauerbrunn in central defense, Short looked even more comfortable shifting to her natural role at left back after halftime. Considering her versatility, recovery speed and one-on-one defending, the 26-year-old is looking like an increasingly critical part of Ellis' squad.
The U.S. also got an encouraging performance from 24-year-old center back Abby Dahlkemper, who earned her third cap and hardly put a foot wrong over 45 minutes.
Long-Mewis duo a work-in-progress
With Brian sidelined and Lindsey Horan getting more minutes up top, Ellis has turned to a central midfield duo of Allie Long and Samantha Mewis for three straight matches.
Mewis was a bit sloppy against Sweden, though she made up for her turnovers with some timely tackles. The same could be said for Long, who saw one giveaway nearly lead to a goal — before she diligently tracked back to make the last-gasp intervention herself.
The midfielders also found themselves occupying the same space early, leaving large gaps and stifling the U.S. buildup. But they developed a better understanding as the Americans found a rhythm after halftime.
Once Brian is recovered from her hamstring injury, it's safe to say she'll occupy a starting spot in central midfield. In the meantime, Long and Mewis are proving to be a serviceable work-in-progress.