When the ball hit the back of the net, a weight came off the shoulders of Savannah DeMelo. The first collegiate goal for the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team midfielder was a long time in the making, one important checkpoint on a long road to recovery.
“It gave me a lot of confidence and set the tone for the rest of the season,” DeMelo said. “The cross was coming in and I was like, ‘You’ve done this a million times, just place it in the corner.’ I remember the ball going into the back of the net. I just hugged my closest teammate, we jumped around in the air and it was an awesome feeling.”
The score secured a 2-0 victory for USC over Missouri in DeMelo’s second game as a Trojan. It sparked a run of four goals in six games. It came perhaps a year after it could have, but that delay took place because of DeMelo’s status as one of the top youth players in the country. She deferred her USC admission in order to play in the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea. But after a stellar showing at CONCACAF qualifying for the tournament, a knee injury suffered two months before the World Cup impacted her ability to perform at her highest level.
Without as much playing time in Papua New Guinea, DeMelo focused on positively impacting the team as a great teammate. She made the most of her on-field minutes, but also valued her time on the sideline in support of the squad.
The experience also left her with a desire for more. That first collegiate goal served as a rung on the climb back to U-20 success. After a full season at USC to recapture her swagger, she’s hungrier than ever with a World Cup berth on the line at the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in Trinidad.
“After that 2016 World Cup, I lost a lot of confidence,” DeMelo said. “I had had everything planned out. I was so excited to get as much playing time as I did in qualifiers. But I realized my role was going to change once I got to the World Cup. You accept your role and help as much as you can on the team. Now, I’ve brought confidence from college back to here.”
At the 2015 Women’s U-20 CONCACAF Championship in Honduras, DeMelo started all five of the USA’s matches en route to the tournament title and Best XI honors. She catalyzed the red, white and blue’s midfield as they punched their World Cup ticket and she stood primed to be a key midfield contributor in at the World Cup.
Those plans changed two months before the tournament. During a routine workout between National Team camps, DeMelo misstepped on a cut and suffered an untimely knee injury. It didn’t require surgery, but it would severely impact DeMelo’s fitness.
“I was out, two months prior to the World Cup. I knew that I wasn’t going to be in as good of shape as I wanted to be. But I would never change the experience I had in Papua New Guinea,” DeMelo said. “It’s rare that you get to go to a World Cup. I think I grew as a person and as a teammate – by not being the starter, I learned how important it is to be the one who gets everyone going, to be the voice on the bench.”
A tough spell ensued for DeMelo after the World Cup in November. As she worked to fully recover from her injury, she didn’t appear in a National Team camp until the following April, which brought her to the first camp under new U-20 WNT head coach Jitka Klimkova, appointed to the position a few weeks earlier. DeMelo struggled with rust and a new coaching philosophy. Those early difficulties made her 2017 rise all the more impressive.
“Her first camps back were challenging for her, but it’s unbelievable where she is now,” Klimkova said. “She’s back and she’s one of our key players. I’m sure her first goal now is to qualify and her second goal is to be a starter and a leader in the World Cup.”
DeMelo’s first season at USC expedited her growth. Eager to make her mark in Los Angeles, especially after the Trojans took home the NCAA title during her deferred season, DeMelo was dynamic as USC’s #10. Back at full strength, the season served to rekindle her confidence.
“She’s the player that I’ve seen the most growth from, starting in April 2017 when she came back to our camp for the first time, to where she is now in January,” Klimkova said. “That’s a big credit to her college environment. She had an amazing college season and her confidence just went up. Where she is at this point, I’m very pleased. She is really helping this team to succeed.”
While Baylor dealt the Trojans a devastating early exit from the NCAA Tournament – a penalty kick shootout defeat in the second round – their elimination opened another door for DeMelo. Klimkova scheduled a November camp to ramp up preparations for World Cup qualifying. With most U-20 mainstays still active in the collegiate post-season, the group featured many players in their first National Team appearances. An inexperienced roster called for DeMelo to be a leader.
Since that camp, it’s been “all systems go” for the U-20 WNT as they ready for World Cup qualifying. Four players on the roster have previous U-20 qualifying experience while nine others have CONCACAF experience at the U-17 level. DeMelo has risen through the ranks with some of her teammates since the U-15 level. At the culmination of her U-20 National Team career this year, DeMelo will compete alongside the players that she has grown up with.
“This year will be special with all the girls,” DeMelo said. “It’s nice to have each other’s backs. We’ve all seen how far we’ve come and how much we’ve sacrificed. It’s great to all come together as a group and go win something.”
Papua New Guinea provided DeMelo an education in being a great teammate. Now, she couldn’t be more excited to take on another World Cup with some of her best friends. As a more mature player on and off-the-field, DeMelo is flying high on the precipice of qualifying. She’s more driven than ever to make her mark in Trinidad and earn another shot at the World Cup.
“Every choice that I made helped to get me where I am now,” DeMelo said. “Now, I know what to expect going into qualifiers and a World Cup. Especially, mentally, how to focus if you aren’t the star or aren’t playing a lot of minutes. We’ve got to punch a ticket to the World Cup and this team has what it takes.”