Don’t call it unexpected: the rapid rise of Savannah DeMelo

The former USC All-American is already making her mark at the highest level.

Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell, wearing the dark home kits, celebrate a DeMelo free kick goal against Orlando.

An iced vanilla latte with oat milk and light ice from Quills.

Just one year ago, it was a Starbucks caramel iced latte with caramel drizzle for Savannah DeMelo, still donning the cardinal and gold in her final season in Southern California.

But the former has now become her go-to order, as DeMelo goes to work in the violet and lavender for Racing Louisville.

It’s a 12-month stretch that’s seen her go from All-American to American international, from senior leader to Rookie of the Month, from USC’s No. 10 to one of May’s Best XI.

“I don’t want to say unexpected,” DeMelo said, “but I was coming into my rookie season just trying to learn as much as I could… and I was ready for the challenge.”

Racing selected DeMelo fourth overall back in December of 2021, making her the highest Trojan selected in four years. Come the following April, she started in Louisville’s opener, playing the full 90 minutes in a 2-1 loss in Chicago.

Three games later, DeMelo opened her NWSL account on a match-winning free kick in a 1-0 victory over San Diego — a right-footed missile into the top right corner of the goal.

“My first goal,” DeMelo said, “was when I was super like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is actually happening. I’m scoring. I’m starting’… I remember we had a couple days off, and me and my friends went to the lake and just reflected on everything. That’s when it hit me.”

That goal was the first of four — all of which came from outside the box — for DeMelo in 2022, who finished as Racing’s second-leading scorer on the season. Of the 50 players selected in the 2022 NWSL Draft, only Diana Ordóñez scored more goals in their rookie campaign.

The USC alum started — and played more than 80 minutes — in all 22 of Racing’s games this season. But come season’s end, DeMelo’s name was absent from the list of three finalists for Rookie of the Year.

“The three they picked were all amazing players,” DeMelo said. “Definitely disappointed because everyone wants to make it, but it doesn’t take anything away from the season I had and how I contributed with the team. All that stuff is extra.”

Despite the omission, DeMelo’s season hardly went without recognition.

After leading Louisville to a once beaten month of May, DeMelo earned a spot on the month’s Best XI. She scored a pair of goals in July, playing every single minute on her way to Rookie of the Month honors.

DeMelo finished 2022 with the 14th best average match rating according to FotMob — a rookie mark only topped by Samantha Coffey. By late August, two days after a contest against the Red Stars, her rapid ascension had become impossible to ignore — for everyone.

“My trainer came up to me,” DeMelo said, “and she was like, ‘Are you ready to go?’ And I’m like, ‘Am I ready to go where?’ And she goes, ‘To camp.’”

To be fair to DeMelo, the USWNT roster for the September friendlies had been set seven days prior. But when Trinity Rodman couldn’t attend due to a family commitment, it was the former Trojan who got the call.

“I literally looked at my phone,” DeMelo said, “and it said, ‘Vlatko: Can I call you in five minutes?’ I was super pumped. I got super red. And I went and had a conversation with him and within three hours I was flying to Kansas for camp.”

She earned a second call-up a month later, which included a trip across the Atlantic for friendlies with Spain and England — the latter in front of 76,000 at Wembley Stadium.

But DeMelo wasn’t always the complete player the last 12 months have proven her to be. Keidane McAlpine coached the U.S. international for all five of her years in Southern California, and there’s one thing that sticks out about their time together.

“Always talking to her about her defending,” McAlpine said with a laugh. “We spent probably the first two years just talking about her defending and her willingness to run and work… That was our thing. Just trying to get her better in that.”

All the time and effort has paid instant dividends for DeMelo at the next level. Her 3.06 tackles per 90 against wingers and attacking mids put her in the 96th percentile of all midfielders in top eight competitions.

DeMelo finished in the 87th percentile for interceptions, blocks and clearances as well. The former youth attacking midfielder has not only added the defensive element to her locker, she’s become one of the world’s best defenders at her position.

“Props to [former USC assistant coach] Jason [Lockhart] and Keidane because they kind of transformed me into that player,” DeMelo said.

“I’m not playing against girls that are younger than me. I’m playing against girls who are 30-plus years old, national team players, so I knew I had to add that, and I think that’s what separated me from college Savannah to a professional Savannah.”

In just 12 months, Savannah DeMelo added a Best XI and a Rookie of the Month to her resume, and picked up her first — and second — senior national team call-up. The next dozen include the dawn of year two, a potential World Cup nod and maybe — just maybe — a reunion with her dog Milo.

“My family’s super attached to him,” DeMelo said, “so it’s going to take a lot to get him to go to Louisville… We’ll see.”