Sports are almost always cruel -- not just for the fans saddled with supporting cursed teams, but for the players who deserve glory, but get dealt an endless stream of heartbreak and a lifetime of what ifs. Soccer, where goals are blue moons, is an especially cruel sport. International soccer even more so. World Cups, the pinnacle of the sport, are held once every four years, meaning most players only get to experience two or three of them during their careers with maybe one -- two if they're lucky -- coinciding with the peak of their athletic powers. Most, even legends like Marta, don't get to win a World Cup. Even fewer get to score a goal in a World Cup final. 

But every so often, the planets and stars and moons align and the soccer gods give their blessing and what happens is what's deserved. It happened four years ago when Carli Lloyd completed a hat-trick from midfield in the U.S women's national team's win over Japan in the World Cup final, cementing her status as one of the greatest players in the history of American soccer after she put herself through hell and reemerged as a hardened player who deserved the moment she found on a sunny Vancouver afternoon in the summer of 2015.

It happened again in Lyon on Sunday.

In the 69th minute of the USWNT's 2-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final, Rose Lavelle collected a central pass, darted forward into empty space, dribbled straight at the teeth of the Dutch defense, rolled her preferred left foot over the ball, cut to the left at the top of the box, and ripped a legend-making goal into the bottom corner with her left boot. Her follow through carried her body through the air and into the ground, and she landed with a thud facing away from goal. It didn't matter. The smile was already etched across her face before she hit the grass. She knew what had just happened. 

The best player at the 2019 Women's World Cup effectively ended the 2019 Women's World Cup with one of the best goals of the 2019 Women's World Cup.

It was a moment that Lavelle deserved and much more importantly, actually got -- the type of moment that eluded so many others that came before her. Even though Megan Rapinoe won the tournament's Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards, it was Lavelle who emerged as the tournament's biggest winner after performing like the sport's best player on the sport's biggest stage. That's not a shot at Rapinoe, who scored six goals, including five during the knockout stages (only one came from open play).

But the best and most consistent player in open play was Lavelle -- a brilliant two-way midfielder who made her World Cup debut this summer a little more than two years after her first cap with the USWNT, two years after she suffered the first of three serious hamstring injuries that plagued her for a year, and four years after she watched from a pizza shop as Lloyd led the USWNT past Japan in the World Cup final.

First, after two goals in the USWNT's 13-0 bludgeoning of Thailand and two dominant showings in wins against Sweden and Spain, when she flexed her awesome combination of speed, the ability to progress the ball forward as a dribbler, the skill to play in her teammates with perfectly weighted passes, and the endurance and tenacity to contribute defensively, she emerged as the USWNT's best midfielder -- the one midfielder coach Jill Ellis couldn't afford to drop even though her other options at the position included Lindsey Horan, Samantha Mewis and Julie Ertz. 

Then, even after a self-described "atrocious" performance against France in the quarterfinal, she emerged as the USWNT's best player period against England in the semifinal. She bossed the midfield for the first 45 minutes, only to go down with a hamstring injury that ended her masterpiece 30 minutes too early. Lavelle deserved a goal in what was looking like the match of her life. Instead, she got a sickening reminder that the soccer gods don't give a damn about what players deserve. It's no coincidence the U.S. lost all semblance of control over the match when Lavelle exited, needing VAR and a poorly placed penalty to survive and advance.

With the final against the Netherlands only days away, it seemed like the end of Lavelle's World Cup run. Even after she claimed to be fine immediately following the match, it felt like another case of a player self-diagnosing the situation with a heavy dose of optimism instead of looking at it realistically. Hamstrings are troublesome. Lavelle's have been remarkably troublesome. If that really had been the end of her World Cup, it wouldn't have been the one she deserved.

You could see it in her reaction, the realization that something so special might be plucked away by something entirely out of her control, a villain she thought she'd defeated reappearing at the worst possible moment. 


Roughly an hour before kickoff on Sunday morning, the USWNT released its starting XI for the final. While most eyes immediately found Rapinoe -- also battling a bad hamstring -- listed on the left flank, the most important inclusion in the starting lineup was Lavelle on the other side of the pitch. The USWNT wasn't going to be forced to soldier on without its best player. And Lavelle was going to get the chance to write the ending she deserved. 

The funny thing about sports is that Sunday wasn't even close to being Lavelle's best all-around performance of the tournament, even though it's undoubtedly going to be remembered as her best. Soccer might be cruel, but it sometimes has a sense of humor. 

For so much of the match, Lavelle struggled to make an impact. It wasn't entirely her fault as the USWNT tactically decided to forgo building through the midfield by serving up low-percentage long balls toward its three forwards. But she also got dispossessed on more than one occasion and hit a couple errant passes. Her best moments came as a defender hustling back to break up a couple of attacks with well-timed tackles from behind. After a masterclass against England, she was just another normal good player out there on the pitch against the Netherlands, struggling to find the gaps in a disciplined defense.

And then the 69th minute arrived. Eight minutes earlier, Rapinoe buried yet another penalty kick to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. With the Netherlands suddenly forced to come out of their shell to pursue a tying goal, the game opened up. Left back Crystal Dunn made a sensational tackle near the left sideline. The ball fell to Mewis. She slid it on over to Lavelle, who carried the ball forward. She could've played in Alex Morgan or Tobin Heath on either side of her. Instead, after seeing so many of her created chances result in misses throughout the tournament, Lavelle took matters into her own hands at the match's monumental moment. She saw an opening. So she took it.

"They hadn't given us much space the whole game," Lavelle told ESPN. "Sam played me a ball. I saw some space so I took it and then got a shot at the top of the box. Thankfully, it went in."

She got the goal she deserved. 


"She has just been missing that little bit all tournament and for her to get that reward tonight on the biggest stage, I'm so proud of her," Rapinoe said, per NBC Sports. "She's a straight up superstar."

It's not just about the goal. For nearly the entire tournament, Lavelle functioned as the USWNT's best player. According to Paul Carr of TruMedia Networks, she successfully completed 12 out of 17 take-ons, good enough for a 71 percent success rate (the average was 55 percent). Only Heath with 13 had more successful take-ons among USWNT players. Lavelle also recorded 11 tackles, the third-highest total on the team. So much of what she does doesn't show up in the box score, especially when her teammates fail to turn the goal-scoring chances she creates into actual goals. But she does it all.

We saw it in the group stage when she carved up Sweden (the eventual third-place finisher) and set up Rapinoe for a goal-scoring opportunity. The pass was weighted and timed perfectly. 


We saw it again against Sweden when her speed and off-ball movement led to what would've been another goal-scoring opportunity if Morgan hadn't misplayed the final pass.


We saw it against Spain in the Round of 16 when she again, like a surgeon, set up Rapinoe for what should've been a goal. The cutback to get inside was splendid. The pass was flawless. 


We saw it again against Spain when Morgan left her in what should've been an inescapable situation among two defenders, but she deftly navigated her way out of trouble and distributed the ball to Heath in a dangerous area.


We saw it in the nutmeg against England that nearly resulted in the goal of the tournament. With all due respect to Heath, Lavelle might be the team's most effective dribbler. The ball tends to stop when Heath gains possession, play slows down as Heath enters 1-v-1 mode, and the world watches her go to work. It's different with Lavelle. The ball keeps moving. The flow isn't disrupted. She attacks the goal with purpose and doesn't hesitate to fire off a shot.


We saw it again against England when her dummy freed up Kelley O'Hara for a cross that found Christen Press' head and resulted in an early goal. 


We saw it in the final when Lavelle's slick moves weren't fooling the Netherlands, so she made one of her most impactful plays as a defender to atone for her mistake at the other end of the pitch. After losing the ball in a dangerous area -- she was the lone buffer between the attack and defense -- she embarked upon a dead sprint to pursue a player who had a five-yard head start before executing a clean tackle from behind. Most of the time in those situations, a midfielder makes a tactical decision to stop the counterattack by dragging down the ballcarrier with a card-worthy foul. As Lavelle hunted her down, it looked like she planned to do exactly that. Instead, she won the ball back without drawing a whistle.

The counterattack was over before it could even reach midfield.


She's a two-way player. Look at the way she cleanly dispossessed Dominique Bloodworth a few minutes later. When the camera zoomed in on the action, it looked as if Lavelle was cooked, almost like she was giving up on the chase. When the camera retracted, Lavelle was already in the process of poking the ball free before the U.S. quickly went back the other way in search of an insurance goal. 


And then we saw it in the 69th minute. The moment when everything fell into place.


To be clear, even if she hadn't scored in the final, she would've walked away as the USWNT's most important player and the future of American soccer. Even before the tournament, she was one of the USWNT's best players. What the goal did is push her into the spotlight. She's no longer a secret. She's one of the most famous American soccer players on the planet. She'll enter the next World Cup as the headliner.

Lavelle got the ending to her magical World Cup that she deserved, but this is only her beginning. She's now poised to become the new face of the USWNT when the likes of Rapinoe (34), Lloyd (almost 37), and Morgan (30) are forced to step aside or take on lesser roles. In four years time, Lavelle will be 28. She should be at her athletic peak. Look at what she just did at age 24 in her first ever World Cup. Imagine what she'll do at 28 having already acquired the experience of leading the USWNT to its record fourth championship. If this World Cup was her breakout, the next World Cup will be her chance to cement her status as one of the world's greatest soccer players and an American soccer icon.

She used to dress up as Mia Hamm. Now, there's a very real chance she'll be the hero kids dress up as.

That's what the goal did. But it goes beyond what she does on the pitch. 

"I always tell people that Rose is the coolest weird person," U.S. teammate Emily Sonnett said before the World Cup, per ESPN. "She doesn't care if she has a weird way, she's going to stay that way. But she's so cool doing it."

Exhibit A: 

"She is just such an interesting, neat person, and I think that kind of translates into her game as well," Horan said, per ESPN. "She's a very creative player, unique player, and I think those are the players I love playing with the most. She brings so much to this team. She's just a very dynamic and technical player. She's crucial in our attack, bringing something else to the plate."

Exhibit B:

Even Lavelle knows: Sports are almost always cruel. It's why that goal was so important. Even though Lavelle is best positioned to serve as the USWNT's superstar at the next World Cup, which the U.S. will likely be favored to win, there's no guarantee it'll actually happen. The USWNT's dominance at this year's World Cup was undeniable, but so is the fact that the rest of the world -- Europe especially -- is slowly but surely catching up. In four years, France, England, the Netherlands, Germany or Sweden could upset the Americans. Lavelle's hamstrings could betray her again. Chances are, given the inherent cruel nature of sports, things won't go quite as planned. They almost never do. That's why it was so important Lavelle took the moment when it presented itself to her. She might not get a moment like that again. 

Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. But we all know what happened on Sunday. 

On a sunny Sunday in Lyon, the planets and stars and moons aligned, the soccer gods gave their blessing, and Rose Lavelle finally found a pocket of space, rolled the ball underneath her favorite foot, cut to the left, blasted the ball with precision and power, and secured the USWNT's championship with a goal the best player at the World Cup so thoroughly deserved, a goal that established her as an American soccer legend. 

Lavelle might be the future of American soccer. But this moment already belongs to her.