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Why USWNT-France quarterfinal match really did feel like 'final before the final'

PARIS -- This city comes alive at night. Its pulse quickens as the museums empty out and the restaurants fill, the people crowding into bistros in the Latin Quarter or the Marais or up on the hill near Sacre Coeur. As evening falls, the 7th Arrondissement becomes the center as the Eiffel Tower begins to glow. It sparkles on the hour and -- on most nights -- shows the city's heartbeat.

Friday was different. On this evening, the light, the energy, the blood came from the southwestern part of the city, from the old Parc des Princes stadium, where 10,000 American fans mixed with, and ultimately shouted down, 30,000 French supporters as the Women's World Cup tournament erupted.

United States 2, France 1. Or put another way: Megan Rapinoe 2, France 1.

"C'est magnifique ce soir," Rapinoe said, with a lovely French accent, and why not? For her, Friday night surely was beautiful.

The whole day was, really. They called it la final avant la lettre here -- in English, it roughly translates to, "the final before the final" -- and it felt that way. This was technically a quarterfinal, but in name only: Fans packed the trains into the city all day, and shouts of "Allez les Bleus!" could be heard by the Ferris wheel in the Tuileries and from the cafes by Bastille. Whatever the round of the competition, this was the tournament showpiece.

Everyone -- everyone -- was ready. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, took time out from managing the city through a desperate heatwave to post on social media about the game and invite everyone to a massive watch party. The city's firefighters got involved too, posting a video that celebrated the strength of the modern women and cheering the French national team as inspirations.

There was fun to be had, as well: France's Ministry of Finance released a report that highlighted the friendly economic relationship between France and the United States, while some buses (in Paris and other cities) had their display boards flashing "Allez les Bleus" instead of their route. Even in the United States, the anticipation built steadily; fans gathered to see the broadcast on a giant screen in Times Square, and supportive Twitter posts for the U.S. team came from personalities as varied as Ellen DeGeneres and LeBron James.

By late afternoon, the area around the stadium crackled through temperatures that soared to 90 degrees. Crowds poured from the subway at Pont de Sevres, and the blocks of fans moved en masse, singing and shouting and choking traffic even more than usual. "If you're not jumping, you're not French," they sang, bouncing in unison.

The wait for the game had been forever. France's assistant coach, Philippe Joly, said what everyone already knew when he noted that, "Since [the tournament draw in] December, everyone is obsessed with this quarterfinal." The stadium filled. The French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, was there. So was the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Jose Mourinho too.

"It was the most intense match I've ever been a part of," said U.S. coach Jill Ellis -- no small statement when you consider that she already has coached a World Cup-winning team.

Earlier in the week, Rapinoe, unmissable with her purple hair and a motor that seems to go forever, was in the spotlight for comments she made months ago about not wanting to visit the White House, calmly handling another controversy stacked on top of the lawsuit she and her teammates have filed against U.S. Soccer alleging gender bias. There were Tweets and videos and hot takes, but none of it shook her focus on this game, which she said she hoped would be "a circus, a spectacle."

It was -- in large part because of her. After the French fans unfurled an elegant tifo of Marianne, the symbol of the French Revolution and liberty, the stands rippled through the national anthems and, within minutes, Rapinoe took hold.

First, she took an aggressive throw-in from the near side, sending Alex Morgan scampering down the line where a French defender could do nothing more than foul her.

Then, after standing over the free kick from the left flank, Rapinoe whipped her right foot through the ball and sent it dipping into the crowd in front of the net. It went over and under and through so many legs that the veteran France goalkeeper, Sarah Bouhaddi, only saw the ball once it was past her. Bedlam followed.

Rapinoe sprinted toward the corner, pointing up into the fans before she was plowed under by her teammates. "I'm back!" she seemed to shout to Kelley O'Hara, though it was hard to imagine where she had gone -- as it was her third goal in the past two games.

The fourth came exactly an hour later, at the end of a gorgeous pass from Morgan to spring Tobin Heath, who ripped down the sideline and sent in a tantalizing cross that fell for Rapinoe at the far post. She barely looked at the goal before cashing her shot beneath Bouhaddi.

"It was a game we'll never forget here in Paris," Rapinoe said.

There was a small twist remaining, as Wendie Renard's thundering header gave France hope, and the final 10 minutes were an appropriate frenzy: O'Hara nearly handed the ball and France shouted in vain for a penalty. Amandine Henry lunged for a cross but couldn't connect. Christen Press came on as a substitute and killed time. The French were bottled up at midfield time after time.

Finally, the referee blew the whistle. Morgan raised her hands. Heath punted the ball up into the stands. Rapinoe, looking exhausted, hugged everyone she could find.

It was over. The American fans jumped together. The French fans, finally, stood still.

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