So much of this is new to Savannah DeMelo, and there are many more firsts to come for the Bellflower native and USC graduate as she settles in among the 23 women named to the U.S. roster for the World Cup tournament that will start next month in Australia and New Zealand.
So DeMelo had to share a laugh with teammate Casey Murphy on Tuesday, while traveling to a news conference for the U.S. team at Dignity Health Sports Park, when she found something familiar at the Carson complex where she had spent many hours training with youth national teams.
“It still smells the same,” she said, smiling. “We remembered that on our first day we’d get our gear. We’d be super excited, taking pictures in front of the crest. It’s so awesome because I’ve done that with a lot of girls…. I think it’s just awesome. It’s a full-circle moment.”
To come full circle, she had to take an unusual route.
DeMelo, 25, is one of 14 World Cup first-timers on the roster. An attacking midfielder with good vision and game-changing skills, she had been called to team camps twice last fall but couldn’t break into the strong U.S. midfield. She has no career caps — senior U.S. team appearances — and that’s startling on a roster led by four-time World Cup team members Alex Morgan (206 caps), Megan Rapinoe (199) and Kelley O’Hara (157), as well as three-time World Cup selections Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz.
Coach Vlatko Andonovski had encouraged DeMelo to improve the offensive dimensions of her game and had communicated with her via texts and through video sessions this season while she excelled for the NWSL’s Racing Louisville. She knew he was watching her but she didn’t know where she stood until Andonovski gave her the good news last week via FaceTime.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations but one of the hardest things is making this team, so I was never super confident, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make it. I deserve to make it,’” she said. “It was, if it happened, I was super grateful for it, and I was just working hard to get there.
“But when he called me, it was surreal. Shocked. I was grateful. Excited. But I was ready to get to work.”
Midfielder Ashley Sanchez of Monrovia and UCLA, who played with DeMelo on local kids’ teams and the U.S. under-20 team, acknowledged that while DeMelo’s path was unusual, it led her where she belongs.
“It doesn’t happen every day but she played her way in,” Sanchez said of DeMelo’s no-cap status. “And I think when your form was as good as hers, or is as good as hers, she deserves it.”
DeMelo was a gymnast until she was 8 and didn’t take soccer seriously until she was 9, a relatively late start. Her father, Robert, played the sport in his native Portugal, but he and her mother, Kim, were smart enough to let the oldest of their three daughters come to soccer herself rather than forcing her into it.
She played volleyball and basketball for fun. “I wasn’t that great,” she said. She gravitated to soccer for the team aspects, for the love she developed while watching games with her father and admiring Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. “He’s like a god at our house,” she said.
Her father coached her and still coaches for Beach FC. “It’s sometimes hard to have a relationship with your dad and he has to be a coach at the same time, but I think he perfected that,” she said. “He was my first coach and he really gave me so much insight on what it is to not only be a soccer player but have the lifestyle of a soccer player. It’s not just about going to practice Monday, Wednesday. It’s about what you’re doing on the weekends, how you’re taking care of your body and the extra stuff you’re doing.”
DeMelo feared her career might have ended in 2019 when she tore her Achilles tendon, but she got through rehabilitation and finished her college career with appearances in 75 games and four all-conference honors. “I think it just kept me super hungry to come back and not just come back the player I was, but even better,” she said. “I’m super proud of myself because I think I did do that, and I wouldn’t really have believed it if you told me that back then that I would be better than before I got injured.
“And I think I have more of an appreciation for the game because it was taken away from me for so long.”
She also has lots of questions for teammates who have national team and World Cup experience. She said she apologized in advance for asking too many questions, but there’s really no such thing. Besides, Ertz is happy to be a resource for the newbies.
“They know how to play soccer. That’s why they’re here,” Ertz said. “I’m just there to support and give the understanding of details I think are important. But for them to bring their individual flair is what’s going to win tournaments.”
That part of the World Cup, at least, will be familiar to DeMelo.