LYON, FRANCE — In the moments following her World Cup semifinal goal Tuesday against England, Christen Press felt like she was having an out-of-body experience.
There was the dummy pass from Tobin Heath, whizzing through the box past Rose Lavelle, who stepped aside and let it find space. There was the cross into the box from Kelley O’Hara. And then there was the finish: Press right in front of the goal, ready to head it in for a 1-0 U.S. lead in the 10th minute. But then came that out-of-body sensation.
“I felt like a little bit surreal,” Press said. “Like the whole moment was surreal. I think the game was so intense, it was so much defending, it was emotional, back and forth. I think it feels a little bit like I was watching from afar.”
What is very real is the Americans’ depth. Much had been said about the attacking talent the U.S. brought to the World Cup, even on the bench. And Press was the latest example.
When the U.S. released its starting lineup, one name was glaringly absent: Megan Rapinoe. Heading into Tuesday, Rapinoe had scored the last four goals for the U.S., the first American player to do so in a World Cup. But Rapinoe tweaked her hamstring in the second half against France last week and didn’t play at all in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over England. She said after Tuesday’s win she will be rested and ready for Sunday’s final.
“It just felt like it wasn’t gonna hold up, so we have been talking about this depth that we have … for months and months and months and all throughout the tournament,” Rapinoe said. “It was on full display tonight. We just felt like that was the best option for not only myself but for the team.”
Press slotted in for Rapinoe on the left wing – and it only took 10 minutes for the lineup switch to pay dividends. On top of the early goal, Press brought perhaps the most speed of any U.S. player and an ability to stretch defenses.
While she spent most of her time on the wing Tuesday, Press also attacked from up top. Her versatility has long been one of Press’s calling cards – and one she finally got to play on the biggest stage. Tuesday’s goal was her first of this summer’s tournament.
“Christen was great,” forward Alex Morgan said. “She was stretching the back line and she can also play that ‘9’ role, so there were a lot of times we were interchanging sometimes naturally throughout the game. … We kind of just let the game take it. I think she had a tremendous game.”
There’s a mental energy associated with any World Cup experience. But when a player isn’t sure whether they’ll play an entire match or not at all, that can require a different mental output. That up-and-down nature is something Press has learned to play through – and it paid off Tuesday.
“The most proud moments I’ve had in my career are after failures when you kind of learn the sun also rises and that the world keeps spinning when you fail and when you succeed,” Press said. “That has built for me a steadiness, a calmness. And the World Cup is crazy, it’s intense, it’s emotional and for me, that doesn’t serve the way I play well. So I’ve tried to create like a steadiness through it.”
Press managed to stay sharp after waiting until the 87th minute to sub in during the Americans’ quarterfinal match against France and was ready for a full 90 minute stretch against England during the semifinal.
She found out during Monday’s pre-game meeting that she would be taking Rapinoe’s place in the starting lineup.
“I knew and trusted that she was ready for the moment,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said said of Press.
Press rewarded her coach by believing the right cross eventually would land and she would be ready to help her team win. O’Hara’s cross found Press, setting up an unconventional but special goal that helped send the U.S. to the World Cup final.
“I think as a forward you imagine the ball landing on your run every time someone crosses it and it rarely does, to be honest. And you just believe it’s going to every single time,” she said. “Believing that every time I make a run, the ball will find me. It was a beautiful cross, a long cross and I’m not known for my aerial prowess – so I’m very proud of this goal.”