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JW with Sam Mewis on World Cup Qualification, Being Tested by Injury, and 25-Yard Wonder Strikes

This article originally appeared in the October 19 issue of our newsletter, The Raven. Subscribe HERE

Sam Mewis is a six-foot American midfield dynamo with a sledgehammer for a right foot. Sunday night, when the final whistle blew in Frisco, Texas and the USNT (not a typo) had dispatched Jamaica 6-0 to qualify for France, the Massachusetts-raised, UCLA-reared No. 3 officially stood on the brink of her first major international football tournament. In 2015, a 22-year-old Sam wasn’t selected to the World Cup roster. The following year, she was an Olympic alternate. But 2017 ushered in the MewisWNT-era, a year during which she was one of only two players to start in every game for the national team (the other was GFOP Becky Sauerbrunn). Sam was also one of five nominees for U.S. Soccer’s 2017 Female Player of the Year. But in the final game of 2017, against Canada, Sam suffered cartilage damage to her right knee, putting her World Cup dream in jeopardy. This week, I caught up with Sam via phone to talk about the U.S.’s qualifying dominance, the mental trials of recovery, and what lifting the trophy in Lyon would mean to her.

JW: Prior to the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, we interviewed Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara. Despite our protestations, they were adamant the USWNT’s spot in France 2019 was not preordained. What was Jill Ellis’ message to the group ahead of these games?

SM: All along, the motivation for this tournament has been to qualify. I know sometimes we get laughs from the media when we say, “We didn’t qualify yet,” but it’s true. We really didn’t take it for granted. It’s a piece of what makes this group so special. And Jill was consistent in that message, going all the way back to last year. All of her team talks focused on qualifying. I love that it gave us a stepping stone and a more immediate goal before the World Cup.

JW: The team was so dominant in qualifying, scoring 26 goals without conceding. Did this feel like the culmination of Jill’s transformation from a smothering, physical style to a more possession-based, play out of the back ethos?

SM: I haven’t thought about it that explicitly, but some of our pieces really clicked during this tournament. We’ve certainly evolved over the past three years. Our tactical goal is to break down areas of the field and then try and be really specific about our movements and connection to teammates within those areas. And with the players we have, Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan in the midfield, and Abby Dahlkemper playing out of the back, it’s naturally a beautiful brand of soccer. That said, we still have pieces of that high-pressure aggressive mentality. This just adds a layer to our physicality.

JW: This tournament has also been, in some ways, the culmination of your recovery from a serious knee injury. One that kept you out for five months and the start of the NWSL season. An injury made worse by difficulty diagnosing it. You weren't even sure you’d be fit for qualifying. Was there a low point when you thought you might be robbed of this opportunity?

SM: I had a lot of ups and downs this year. As I recovered, I didn’t feel like myself. I wasn’t as confident. But I received a lot of help from other players on the national team who have gone through long-term injuries. Having that support helped me come back with a sense of confidence. And when I look back on it, I’m grateful for the experience. In the long run, this injury will help me understand myself and where I want my career to go.

JW: You returned to help the NC Courage’s title-winning campaign. Among the highlights of the entire NWSL season, THIS SEMIFINAL BLAST against Chicago that would still be rising if it weren’t for the back of the net. We have to ask, for those of us who will never know, what does it feel like to strike a ball like that?

SM: It feels amazing to catch one that clean, but as I watched it, I thought it was going to keep bearing left and go wide. Thankfully it caught the post and went in [WATCH THIS ANGLE]. I spent so much of the year questioning my game, but that moment felt really good. I don’t know if it solidified, “I’m back,” but was a step in the right direction.

JW: This U.S. team wins on the field. It also wins on “The Gram.” Who would you say are the team leaders on social media? And how does the competition to post the best stories play out behind the scenes?

SM: (Laughs) I’m with two of my friends right now who are aggressively pointing at themselves, Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett. The younger girls are connecting with a younger audience. Sometimes Rose and Sonnett will explain to me, or the older girls, the new trends. People like Mallory Pugh know all the new things coming out. So those three I’ve mentioned are definitely up there. What I think is important is engaging with the fans, so they have access to us and feel like they’re part of this.

JW: When you close your eyes at night, do you allow yourself to dream of what it would feel like, walking out onto the field in France, wearing a U.S. jersey, playing in your first major tournament?

SM: I have dreamt of this since I was young. But one thing I haven’t taken for granted is making that final roster. There is so much competition within the team that no roster spots are guaranteed.

JW: Okay, but if you do make that roster, and the U.S. were, to say, march on Lyon and win back-to-back World Cups, what do allow yourself to imagine what winning that trophy would feel like?

SM: I got chills when you said that. I have dreamt of being on this team since ‘99. Even before that, actually. It’s always been my No. 1 priority in life through school, through college, through everything. What I have learned from being close, but not quite ready in 2015, and as an alternate in 2016 is that the team is so much bigger than me. And to be a part of that is a huge deal and not something to be taken lightly. Whatever I can do to better the team and give the group a chance of performing well and winning, I’m ready to do that. It would be the culmination of a life-long dream.