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Column:: World Cup newcomer Samantha Mewis sidesteps the butterflies to lead U.S. past Sweden

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, Le Havre, France - 20 Jun 2019
United States’ Samantha Mewis, left, in action with Sweden’s Nathalie Bjorn during the Women’s World Cup Group F match in Le Havre, France on Thursday.
(Peter Powell / European Pressphoto Agency)

Butterflies fluttered through her stomach, a rare sensation for Samantha Mewis. The dynamic midfielder had played in big games before, including the 2013 NCAA championship match with triumphant UCLA, and she had made her World Cup debut last week, starting and scoring two goals when the U.S. women began group play with a rout of Thailand. So it wasn’t first-time jitters that hit Mewis as she sat in the locker room at Stade Oceane on Thursday.

The prospect of facing Sweden felt different to her, and with good reason. Thailand and then Chile had been easy opponents. Sweden would not be a pushover. Tapped to start after Julie Ertz was held out of the game to protect a hip contusion, Mewis knew she’d be asked to scale higher heights. As one of 11 U.S. women chosen for their first World Cup team, Mewis sought advice from teammate Becky Sauerbrunn, who’s playing in her third World Cup tournament.

“I did get a little nervous today before the game and I confided that in Becky, and she just reminded me to complete my first pass,” Mewis said. “When I got nervous I looked around the locker room and was, ‘”Oh, Becky’s here and Kelley’s here, and ‘Pinoe’s here and Carli’s here, then I was like, oh, these are my teammates, I’m going to be fine. They’re going to make my job easy,’” she said, referring to World Cup veterans Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe, and Carli Lloyd. “So I think that helps a lot. I also have a lot of family here, so when I do get nervous on the field, I remember that they’re here and I’m playing for them, too, and between my teammates and my family it makes me feel a lot better.”

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The first-time World Cup competitors didn’t play like rookies in the 2-0 victory that allowed the Americans to win their group and launched them into a round-of-16 matchup against Spain on Monday in Reims.

Mewis led the first-timers with a solid performance and set up the first goal when she flicked a low, grass-skimming corner kick from Rapinoe toward fellow World Cup rookie Lindsey Horan, who scored from close range three minutes into the game. Midfielder Rose Lavelle was active, too. On defense, Abby Dahlkemper — also a member of UCLA’s 2013 championship team — and Crystal Dunn faced their first real challenge of the tournament and held up well as the U.S. recorded its third straight shutout.

“Crystal was an animal tonight,” O’Hara said. “She absolutely shut down that left wide, their right side. The whole time I’m on the back side watching it, being like, ‘Hell yeah, this is awesome.’ I’m proud of her.”

That summed up O’Hara’s sentiment about all of the newbies. “For some of the girls on the team this is their first World Cup and stepping into big shoes and big roles and performing. And it’s really awesome. I’m really proud of them,” O’Hara said. “I think it’s great. We need every player on the field and on the bench peaking right now and being full of confidence, and I think that’s what they’re getting.”

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Rapinoe said she expected Mewis and other first-time World Cup players to be jittery, given the tougher competition and the U.S. team’s history with Sweden, which includes a bitter quarterfinal loss on penalty kicks at the 2016 Olympics. “This was probably the biggest game some of them had played in, if they hadn’t been to the Olympics or World Cup. It’s only the group stage and we’re already through but obviously there was a little bit more hype or talk around this game,” Rapinoe said. “But I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t take over.”

Mewis channeled her nervous energy well, using her 6-foot-tall frame to win aerial battles, recover the ball, create scoring chances and serve as a catalyst in the midfield. “She was fine. Sam as usual,” Rapinoe said.

And Mewis, as usual, shows signs of becoming extraordinary. “Just a beast. A Tower of Power,” Rapinoe said.

To see Mewis play is to get a glimpse of the potential for continued success for the U.S. women. To hear her speak is to realize she’s a leader. The question is how coach Jill Ellis will get her into the lineup regularly: Mewis started the first game because Sauerbrunn had a minor quadriceps injury and didn’t play the second game but started on Thursday because of Ertz’s injury, but it’s going to be hard to keep her off the field.

Ellis dodged a question about how she will get Mewis on the field when everyone else is healthy, saying she’s happy to have the depth and fresh legs and a “good engine” in the midfield. Mewis will accept any role she is given. “If the team needs me to play I want to play, and if the team needs me to support from the bench and maybe sub in, I’m ready to do that, too,” said Mewis, who plays for North Carolina of the NWSL. “I’m not really thinking about myself. I’m just thinking about what I need to do to be there for the team, whatever they need.”

Told she looked like she’s in good form, Mewis deflected credit to her coaches and teammates. “I think it’s not as hard as it looks when I’m passing with all these world-class players and I have them around me defending and doing so much of the work,” she said.

There’s a lot more work to go, and it will be against ever-tougher opponents. “This team thrives under pressure and I think we’ve been showing that,” Dahlkemper said. That includes the first-time players, butterflies and all.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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