It was an enthralling semifinal that had it all — a contentious offside decision, a penalty, a red card, wonderful saves and three ruthlessly taken goals — but it was a player who did not feature in the US’ 2-1 win over England in Lyon who was the focus of much attention.
The US has progressed to its third consecutive World Cup final and is one match away from defending its title, which would make Jill Ellis the first coach to win the Women’s World Cup twice.
But Megan Rapinoe, the USWNT’s social campaigner who now transcends her sport after agitating the US President last week, was named on the substitutes’ bench. The opening two questions Ellis faced in her news conference centered on her star forward, which goes to illustrate the impact the 33-year-old has had, not just in France but around the world.
She was the match winner in both the last-16 and the quarterfinal, and by saying she would not go to the White House should the US win the competition, she has become a hero to some and a villain to others.
“Megan has a slight strain to her hamstring so wasn’t available,” Ellis explained in answering the question on many people’s lips.
“I feel we have a deep bench and called upon another player.”
Had the US been secretive in not explaining earlier why Rapinoe — who had scored twice against France in the last eight and netted the winning penalty against Spain in the last 16 — had not made the starting lineup? Ellis did not think so, going on to describe Rapinoe’s replacement, Christen Press, who opened the scoring, as “fantastic.”
“There was an outside chance that Pinoe could take a penalty, so we didn’t want to extend ourselves more than we had to,” Ellis added.
“We give our starting XI when we have to. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go to penalty kicks, but that was an option. I don’t know about secrecy; we release [the team lineup] when we release it. Once she was warming up, I think you guys could figure it out.”
After a match, players have to negotiate a line of reporters before they have an opportunity to recover. Tobin Heath, creator of the US’ first goal, walked by without much fuss, but Rapinoe was reportedly faced with a barrage of questions that she patiently answered.
It is hoped that Rapinoe will be fit for Sunday’s final, which will be against either the Netherlands or Sweden — who will play each other Wednesday in Lyon — but even if the 2015 World Cup winner does not make the starting lineup, the US has proved that it has a wealth of talent like no other team in this competition.
The USWNT has also proved that it can turn a blind eye to pressure and other distractions.
Though Rapinoe has dominated headlines this last week, the defending champion has also had to withstand accusations of arrogance after a “spygate” row emerged Sunday when US team officials were spotted in England’s team hotel to scout a possible venue for the final.
There was also the brouhaha after the 13-0 thumping of Thailand in the opening week, with many arguing that the US had over-celebrated scoring against a lesser team.
In answering how her players have managed to block out the noise, Ellis said: “It goes back to the mindset and the expectation.
“We’re here for one thing — not lawsuits, not silly trumped-up things, not silly noise — we’re here for one thing, and that’s the trophy.
“We focus on that. It’s always this way, because when you’re the premier team in the world, you’re always going to have noise, external stuff to deal with, but I think we have a really unique way to make sure everything is about the game plan, the preparation.
“They’re really talking the game, and that’s kind of exciting as a coach. They’re professionals, and that’d be the best way to sum it up.”
Ellis also had a word for her goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who has been criticized during this tournament for her role in the team’s defensive lapses but played the starring role by saving a late Steph Houghton penalty and denying England the opportunity to draw level. She also produced a wonderful first-half save.
“I don’t pay attention to anything you guys write or what anyone thinks. She’s been my No. 1,” the coach told reporters.
“The theme of the tournament is ‘dare to shine,’ so I said to my players the other day, ‘we’re going to add to that, “dare to shine the brightest.” ‘ She shone. She was the brightest.
“I give her full credit. She’s a tremendous person. People care about her; people have her back; people are starting to see glimpses of what I see every day in training. I think she’s making her own mark and creating her own legacy, and I think that’s fantastic, and she made a hell of a save, that’s for sure.”