Why unmatched Savannah DeMelo made the USWNT World Cup roster

Joseph LoweryJune 22, 2023, 12:20 PM ET8 minutes of reading

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As US Women’s National Team fans scan through team’s newly released roster for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, they will see a number of familiar names.

Alex Morgan? Check.

Megan Rapinoe? Check.

Crystal Dunn? Check.

Trinity Rodman? Check.

Savannah DeMelo? Che– wait a minute. WHO?

DeMelo, who plays as an attacking midfielder for Racing Louisville of the National Women’s Soccer League, is the only player on the U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup roster who has yet to make her senior international debut.

Savannah DeMelo, who has been successful in the midfield for Racing Louisville this season, was a surprise addition to the USWNT’s roster for the Women’s World Cup despite not making any appearances with the team.USA TODAY Sports

She’s not exactly new to the USWNT picture: DeMelo was called into USWNT camps twice last fall, once in September as a replacement for Trinity Rodman and once in October. But none of those calls resulted in any actual minutes. She also hadn’t been called up to any USWNT camps this year — until now, that is, when she was named to the USWNT’s World Cup squad on Wednesday.

So why did a player with no appearances for the USWNT earn a coveted spot on the roster? Here’s what the 25-year-old brings to the court and why she forced coach Vlatko Andonovski to pick her.

Let’s start here: Racing Louisville’s latest win against the Kansas City Current. It’s the 64th minute and Louisville leads 2-0 thanks to Savannah DeMelo, who scored the game’s opener by blocking current goalkeeper Cassie Miller’s attempted clearance and assisted on the second goal. Racing Louisville pushes for a third goal as DeMelo gets the ball on the edge of Kansas City’s box. Almost instantly, an attack comes to life.

DeMelo sees forward Uchenna Kanu make a run behind the opposite back line. Even with his back to both the target and his teammate, DeMelo spots Kanu’s run.

Most players in DeMelo’s situation would take an extra touch to turn, face forward and settle before feeding the runner. Not DeMelo.

She wastes no time and opts for a backheel pass into Kanu’s path to avoid letting the defense back into the game.

Kanu can’t quite control DeMelo’s pass, and the sequence fizzles in the end. Still, the entire game helps illustrate the key components of DeMelo’s game: She’s creative and quick — both in physical speed and her ability to read what’s happening on the court — and she changes games in a way few others can.

Playing his second professional season after being selected fourth overall in the 2022 college draft out of USC, DeMelo has developed into a full-fledged star in the NWSL, the league where nearly the entire USWNT talent pool plays club soccer. Andonovski explained his decision to select her: “Her performance in the league was one of the biggest reasons why she is in the team. And based on the needs we have in relation to the opponents and different situations that we can face , we see that Sav is very important for us going forward.”

DeMelo, who often plays as a No. 10 playmaking midfielder behind a forward in Racing Louisville’s 4-2-3-1 formation, is at her best when she can influence the game in key areas.

Despite occupying an attacking midfield role, DeMelo doesn’t always enjoy the freedom and high number of touches that typically come with the No. 10 position. Racing Louisville tends to play against the ball and is averaging just 47.0% possession this year, meaning she doesn’t touch the ball as much as some of her positional counterparts. According to FBref, DeMelo is in just the 40th percentile among NWSL midfielders in touches per 90 minutes this year with 48.2.

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Still, DeMelo doesn’t need a ton of the ball to make his mark. She has five goals and a pair of assists so far in 2023, and according to American Soccer Analysis, she is seventh among all NWSL regular starters in expected goals (xG) plus expected assists (xA) per game. 96 minutes (equivalent to a match plus stoppage time). Expected Goals and Assists measure the likelihood that a shot or an assist leading to a shot will result in a goal. Her numbers mean DeMelo is one of the absolute best in the league at both finding quality shots for himself and set up his teammates for good shots in attack.

The only players above her in that xG+xA ranking? USWNT star Sophia Smith and two of Smith’s teammates with the stacked Portland Thorns, along with Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch, who just missed out on the USWNT’s World Cup squad, legendary attacking midfielder Debinha, who is likely to be Brazil’s star at the World Cup, and Kansas City -winger Cece Kizer.

That, folks, is what we call good company.

DeMelo has great vision and pairs smart decision making with quality execution in all phases of the game. In possession, she pulls off creative plays and flicks like what was already discussed against Kansas City. On the counter attack, she acts almost like a point guard for Louisville, drawing in opposing defenders before finding the perfect pass …

She also adds good service and scoring threat on set pieces, an area of ​​the game where the USWNT tends to build an advantage. This right-handed strike from last year against the Orlando Pride, for example, was hit beautiful. The goalkeeper never had a chance.

Still, it’s not just DeMelo’s threat on the ball that makes her such a valuable player. What she does off the ball is just as impressive.

With savvy off-ball runs and a clear understanding of how to find and exploit space, DeMelo is a constant thorn in the side of defenders across the NWSL. She often pushes forward to add another tally inside the 18-yard box.

This sequence from a recent Racing Louisville game against the North Carolina Courage illustrates her smart movement. As defender Julia Lester drives down the right wing, DeMelo is part of a band of three runners near the top of the box. As Lester makes her move to the right, DeMelo makes sure to read the movement of his two teammates inside the box. One begins to break hard towards goal while the other begins to swing a run towards the front corner of the six-yard box.

As her teammates push back the Courage’s defense, DeMelo realizes she doesn’t need to sprint toward the end line to find a pocket of space.

All she has to do is be patient, keep her going and she can let the play come to her.

And it does. The ball falls to DeMelo, who had found the space she needed, and while she can’t direct the bouncing ball onto the frame, she helps turn a possession into a high-quality chance – that’s exactly what the world’s best players do do .

DeMelo knows when to hold her runs and she knows when to run directly at opponents. She has seemingly boundless energy, making her a huge defensive asset for Louisville. You can see some of that energy on this play against Kansas City, where DeMelo makes a hard, twisting run out of midfield to pressure three Current players and push the ball into the net.

Between his efficiency, creativity and hard runs, DeMelo is a true game-changer in the NWSL. She could also be one for the USWNT. Her vision, play speed and set-piece threat could help the Americans break down some of the compact blocks they will face this summer. Her movement and decision-making in transition could add even more heat to the team’s already fiery counterattack. And her defensive effort and quickness can take Andonovski’s press to the next level.

It won’t be easy for her to earn minutes for the USWNT at the World Cup in a position filled with other skilled and more established players. Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Ashley Sanchez and Kristie Mewis, who are all in the squad, have each had bright moments for both club and country in a similar attacking midfield role.

But if given the chance this summer, DeMelo has the skills to become a mainstay of the USWNT — and even a household name.

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