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Lily Yohannes Is The Truth

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - JUNE 01: Sam Coffey #17 and Lily Yohannes #6 of the United States enter the field for warmups prior to playing the Korea Republic at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on June 01, 2024 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Erin Chang/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images

Six minutes into her debut with the United States women's national team on Tuesday, Lily Yohannes collected an innocent ball from Sam Staab, turned her head up the pitch, and arced a perfectly weighted 50-yard pass to Trinity Rodman, right as Rodman began her run, right at the only speed that could beat the defender and still stay in play. It was one of the best passes I've seen a USWNT player make all year, the stunning high point of Yohannes's historic debut, which was so good that her highlight reel is 10 percent as long as the 20 minutes she spent on the field. Two games against South Korea and seven goals into the Emma Hayes era, there is plenty to be intrigued by, but I find myself totally captivated by the play of Yohannes. Captivated, and, because of her unique situation, rather anxious.

Everything Yohannes has done through her short career is faintly history-making. She signed a professional contract with Ajax at 15, and at 16 became the youngest-ever player to start a Champions League match. Yohannes is one week away from her 17th birthday, and when she made her debut on Tuesday, she became the youngest USWNT player since 2001. When she scored 10 minutes later, she became the third-youngest American goalscorer ever. It should be noted that she did so in one of the most competitive contexts you will ever see for a friendly, as this roster is pretty much the USWNT A-Team, with Yohannes sharing the field with Rodman, Mallory Swanson, Sophia Smith, and Jaedyn Shaw (who is quickly becoming my favorite attacker on the team). Hayes is getting her first look at the roster and wrapping up the agonizing process of whittling said roster down to just 18 spots for the coming Olympics. Twenty minutes is a minuscule platform from which to make a case for such a precious roster spot, but Yohannes made it as convincingly as she possibly could have.

After making that pass, winning the ball a bunch of times, and eating acres of space in the midfield, Yohannes drifted into an open patch of grass in the 82nd minute and popped home a casual shot past Kim Jung-mi (not to be confused with the author of this banger). The goal itself was good, if unspectacular, though what stood out to me was its immediate aftermath. Yohannes's teammates swarmed her, jubilant, and the bench popped off in celebration.

I think that reaction can be explained in part by the spectacle of a young player scoring on her debut, but there's an element of recruitment to it, too. Yohannes, though she has now played for the USWNT, has been public about her intent to keep her options open when it comes to her international future. (That Tuesday's game was a friendly means she's still not cap-tied to the U.S.) She was born to Eritrean- and Ethiopian-American parents in Virginia, where she lived for 10 years before moving to Amsterdam. She is on the path to acquiring a Dutch passport, which would allow her to play for the Leeuwinnen (who, I will note, did not qualify for the Olympics). The Dutch want her, Emma Hayes wants her, and clearly Hayes's players want her.

"She doesn't look like a 16-year-old," Hayes said after the 3-0 win. "She knows what I think about her. I've really pushed and wanted her in this squad." Yohannes joined the team ahead of this past spring's SheBelieves Cup to get some time around the group and see what the environment is like, and her hopefully future teammates have raved about her performances and quality. For her part, Yohannes noted how cool it was to see everyone lose their minds after she scored. "That was so special," she said. "I think that made it just that much more special. I just took off to the corner, and I saw all of them running at me. Just super, super special and so grateful. Such a great team."

As a USWNT fan, I am glad Rose Lavelle and Hayes and Crystal Dunn have made their feelings known, because Yohannes is exactly the type of player the team has sorely needed. She's an extremely slick central midfielder, a player who pops up all over the field and can win challenges with both physicality and guile. Her passing ability, both in tight spaces and from longer distances, is already amazing, though I don't even know if it's her best trait. which may be her composure on the ball. She has that quality all the best central midfielders have, where they seem totally calm receiving passes in compromised situations, under howling pressure, which would be impressive even if she weren't 16. You see her do that sort of thing and see the failed buildups of so many dead USWNT possessions suddenly extending out into uncharted territory.

As much as her reluctance to commit to the USWNT worries me, it's encouraging that she showed up, played for the team, kicked ass, and seemed to have a great time doing it. Olympic spots are at a ludicrous premium, and as much as I think Yohannes should perhaps warrant one on talent, it would be kind of nuts to extend her an offer when each of the 18 players will probably have to play a serious role at some point. But she's so good that I know I'll enjoy watching her for years no matter which team she picks.

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