PARIS — A lot happened in Megan Rapinoe’s life in the days leading up to the United States’ clash with France in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Sure, she was preparing for that big game like the rest of her teammates, which meant training in nearly 100-degree weather and partaking in interviews and news conferences. She also was getting called out on social media by the president of the United States, which meant an onslaught of opinions, praise, criticism, love and hate — a microscope focused closely on her.
A day before the game, she said it wouldn’t affect her focus. During the game, she proved that by scoring twice to lead the U.S. to the semifinals with a 2-1 victory over France. After the game, she said she was motivated by love not hate.
“I don’t really get energized by haters or all that. I feel like there’s more people that love me, so I’m more energized by that,” Rapinoe said during a postgame interview with reporters.
When asked if playing in the World Cup during Pride week motivated her, and if it felt good giving that performance the night before Paris held its 2019 Pride parade, Rapinoe responded energetically, “Go gays!”
“You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever. Science right there,” she joked before continuing. “Yeah, I mean, I’m motivated by people like me and people who are fighting for the same things, and I take more energy from that than trying to prove everyone wrong all the time. That’s sort of draining to me. So, yeah, to be gay and fabulous during pride month at the World Cup is nice.”
Rapinoe, who became the first gay athlete featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, has scored five goals during the World Cup, trying her with teammate Alex Morgan and Australia’s Sam Kerr for the most in the tournament. In 16 World Cup appearances, Rapinoe has been directly involved in 14 goals with eight scores and six assists, according to U.S. Soccer. The U.S. also hasn’t lost a game Rapinoe has scored in since 2014.
Morgan called Rapinoe “an amazing teammate and just like the heart of this team.”
“I really enjoy playing with her,” Morgan said. “So everything that has been going on is just noise.”
Sam over Horan
So we learned — if we didn’t already know — Rapinoe is unflappable. We also learned U.S. coach Jill Ellis may favor Sam Mewis over Lindsey Horan the rest of the tournament.
This was the second consecutive game both were healthy and Mewis started over Horan.
Mewis has performed well throughout the World Cup. Against France, she created space and won battles in the midfield with few lapses until she subbed off for Carli Lloyd in the 82nd minute. She also rifled off a shot early in the second half that forced a save from French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.
But Horan was the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League MVP. She’s largely considered one of the USWNT’s best and most versatile players. Leaving her out of the starting XI was just crazy to some.
Horan did have a quad injury earlier this year and missed months of play — including the SheBelieves Cup, which England won — but she’s fully healthy now.
Leaving her on the bench was a coach’s decision, one Ellis said was simple.
“Just playing Sam. That was kind of it,” Ellis said. “I think Sam can, ya know, separate. They’re both fantastic players, ya know, I think Sam is in form, and you saw that in domestic games. Lindsey is as well, and the beauty of that is we have legs. So, you make those decisions every day as a coach, that’s part of it.”
Horan subbed on in the 63rd minute, replacing Rose Lavelle, and immediately made an impact with a strong, calming presence. Moving forward, will she win back a starting spot? And if so, who will she displace? Mewis? Lavelle? Julie Ertz? The answer is just three days away.
Friday’s win wasn’t pretty. France had 60 percent of possession, was clearly better on the ball throughout the match, took double the number of shots and made 475 passes compared to the Americans’ 302.
“It’s no secret we have to get better on the ball, playing better with it, better offensively, better in our possession and our passing,” Rapinoe said. “They were clearly much better than us in that tonight. We have absolutely our work cut out for us.”
But the U.S. found a way to win — by taking the chances it did have and putting the ball on target. Eight of 10 U.S. shots were on target. The defense also played scrappy and prevented Les Bleues from landing their final touches. And the lethal attack the U.S. is known for had to adjust.
“I had a different role tonight,” said Morgan, who started the sequence that led to Rapinoe’s second goal. “We saw the weakness, and their centerbacks dropping in and not wanting to really get exposed in behind, so I was able to get on the ball more than I have in the past, especially against Spain. So it was great to be able to have that link-up play, and I feel like we were pretty successful in executing that.”
Ellis called the win gritty.
“Was that beautiful in terms of possession and passes? Yeah, maybe not,” Ellis said. “But in terms of what that game represented, I think tonight was as pretty as I’ve ever seen.”