Megan Rapinoe scores twice to lead USWNT past France
PARIS -- Megan Rapinoe played a memorable role when a World Cup quarterfinal launched a new golden era for the United States women's national team eight years ago, serving up the pinpoint pass that Abby Wambach headed home in extra time against Brazil.
On Friday night, even as darkness finally fell over a boisterous Parc des Princes in another quarterfinal for the ages, Rapinoe made sure the sun hasn't set on that era quite yet.
Scoring two goals for the second consecutive game, the first player to do that in the World Cup since Marta in 2007, Rapinoe propelled the United States to a 2-1 win against France in front of a crowd of 45,595.
"I can't get 2011 ... out of my mind, the ball she played to Abby Wambach," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after this latest quarterfinal epic. "It just has always sat with me. Even when we had young players come in, I always said, 'Ask Megan about those moments.' Because there's a never-say-die attitude. She loves and lives for those moments."
Rapinoe gave the U.S. women the lead with a set-piece goal in the opening minutes, then added to her total in a second half in which the United States was largely under siege from the resilient French. It was that second goal that proved to be the difference after France's Wendie Renard headed in a free kick and brought France to within a goal in the final 10 minutes.
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Rapinoe said after the previous game that she wanted a spectacle. She helped make Friday's contest the best kind.
This World Cup hasn't always come off in the best light. From a missing Ballon d'Or winner to goal celebrations to VAR to the all-around chaos of Cameroon against England, controversy has all too often overshadowed soccer. Even on Friday, concerns about excessive heat in Paris cast a proverbial, but unfortunately not literal, shadow over things. But for a night in one of the planet's grandest cities, the spectacle and the soccer were everything.
From a deafening rendition of "Le Marseillaise," the French anthem, and a spirited effort by an enormous contingent of American fans to match the noise from the hosts, the atmosphere was electric with an edge. This wasn't family fun. This was a World Cup quarterfinal.
"This is what you want for a World Cup," U.S. defender Kelley O'Hara said. "You want to have the stands packed and loud and you can't hear a thing, you can't think basically -- you can't even hear yourself speak to somebody else. As a footballer, this is what you live for."
Rapinoe indicated following the contest against Spain that she wanted just that kind of pageantry in Paris. She got it. And as usual, she made the most of it.
It's usually not a sign everything is going smoothly when a player has to open a news conference with a statement before taking questions, as Rapinoe did the day before the match in Paris. But in saying Thursday she stood behind her comments about not wishing to visit the White House, minus some of her language, and then shifting the focus to the game against France, she looked entirely at ease with her place in the spotlight. She always does.
Rapinoe said after the quarterfinal victory that she doesn't thrive off proving people wrong as much as she does rallying people around her. That might be, but she's pretty good as a foil too.
"C'est magnifique, c'est soir," Rapinoe said. "It's everything you want. Obviously, we're not at a home World Cup, so a good healthy, hostile crowd."
Any thought that the week's controversy would distract her or the U.S. team vanished when her free kick went under a leaping Julie Ertz and between the legs of Amandine Henry before sliding into the French net for a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute.
"We take care of ourselves, we take care of each other. We keep a very tight-knit group," O'Hara said. "... Regardless of what is happening outside, we always have each other's back inside this team, inside lines, outside the lines. It's not really about all of that. It's more so, when we step on the field, we have each other 100%, 90-plus minutes."
Early yellow unsettles France
Alex Morgan spent most of the round of 16 game against Spain getting run over, knocked down and generally hassled by opponents intent on being physical with her.
In really the first point of conflict Friday night, she didn't give France's Griedge Mbock Bathy a chance. Morgan's speed gave her a step on Bathy as both chased a ball down the left flank. Bathy didn't do much to hide the firm grip she put on Morgan's arm as a result, drawing a yellow card when the forward finally fell. That sprint, when Morgan certainly looked no worse for wear after the punishment she absorbed against Spain and after earlier injury concerns, created the free kick on which Rapinoe scored.
In addition to the obvious benefit of the goal that followed, the yellow card and the note of caution as to what the United States could do on the counter dulled France's opening salvo.
"[Morgan] worked her tail off," Ellis said. "I thought she tried to hold up play at times, did that well. I thought she looked to penetrate at times. I thought she was strong with the balls that were played into her. ... I think she put her heart and soul into this game."
U.S. digs in to survive
France completed 176 more passes than the United States and had 60% of possession. It doubled up the Americans in attempts, albeit some of that due to the furious late push for an equalizer.
Far from the offensive juggernaut that scored so many goals they created a controversy in its World Cup opener, the U.S. women settled into their own bunker with five players in the back line midway through the second half. They had their lead, the formation switch indicated, and they intended to hold it.
And it worked. The world's deepest attacking team won without any swashbuckling. It won by refusing to buckle, swash or otherwise.
Yes, the second half dissolved into a struggle for survival, but credit the U.S. women for withstanding as tough a test as any they will ever face -- slowing waves of French attacks with a stadium of fans pushing the host forward.
"It's an incredible team, and then you add to that just the surge of momentum from the fans," Ellis said. "At times, it felt like a little bit of tsunami. It was just a lot."
Becky Sauerbrunn's positioning and play throughout shone all the more while sharing the field with Renard. Sauerbrunn made a strong case, quietly as always, as the best defender in the world.
But also give credit to Crystal Dunn and O'Hara. Stretched to the breaking point by France's ability to get wide -- through Kadidiatou Diani on Dunn's side of the field and Amel Majri and Eugenie Le Sommer on O'Hara's side -- the two converted attackers hung in. It was largely composed in the first half and largely frantic in the second half, but they did the job.
"Crystal taking care of Diani, Kelley taking care of Majri and Le Sommer, Abby, JJ [Julie Ertz] and I just taking care of whoever was shooting," Sauerbrunn said. "It was a lot of crosses, we had to absorb a lot. Alyssa [Naeher] came up huge. I'm just extremely proud of the back line and just super proud of the team for gutting this out."
So if O'Hara needed a bit of luck with a near handball in the box in the closing minutes, the ball striking her arm but when it was in a natural position close to her body, she earned it.
The entire U.S. defensive effort earned it.
"The individual effort that combined for an incredible collective effort -- this is the team that I love and know," O'Hara said. "This is the team that the world knows. We play with a lot of heart and a lot of guts and a lot of grittiness."
Lindsey Horan was missed
Rose Lavelle is going to have a decade's worth of good nights in big games. Friday, unfortunately, won't rank highly on that list. The decision not to start Horan for the second game in a row was puzzling before the game started and got no less puzzling as it progressed.
While Horan dealt with multiple injuries this year, missing the SheBelieves Cup game against England, Ellis said the decision Friday was solely coach's discretion to get Sam Mewis in the game.
"Just playing Sam, that was kind of it," Ellis said. "I think Sam can separate. They're both fantastic players. I think Sam is in form, you saw that in the domestic games. And Lindsey is as well. And so the beauty of that is we have legs. You make those decisions every day as a coach."
The United States misses Horan's all-around game when she is not in the midfield, and if getting her back out there means playing her alongside Mewis, then that might need to be the plan.
On to the semifinals
It was a little more difficult than four years ago, when the U.S. women needed only to beat China to advance, but the Americans' streak of reaching the semifinals in every World Cup continues.
And the challenge doesn't get much easier. In winning its quarterfinal against Norway, England finally looked like the chic pick it was before the tournament. The English have played the U.S. women well in recent years, beating them in New Jersey in 2017, and there shouldn't be a fear factor.
It also will be the third consecutive game in which the U.S. opponent has more rest.
France, meanwhile, is out of the World Cup and fails to qualify for the Olympics next summer. The top three European finishers at the World Cup earn Olympic spots. With a new rule allowing it to compete under the Great Britain designation in the Olympics, England already is through to the semifinals and guaranteed a place in Tokyo. And Saturday's quarterfinals pit four more European teams (Italy vs. Netherlands and Sweden vs. Germany).