It was tense. Pressure-packed. And anything but easy. But the most anticipated women’s soccer game in two decades wasn’t supposed to be easy. And the United States won it anyway.
The Americans beat France 2-1 in Paris on Friday to advance to the 2019 Women’s World Cup semifinals. Their hero?
Of course it was Megan Rapinoe.
On the biggest stage, in “the final before the final,” a quarterfinal showdown between the sport’s two best teams, it had to be Megan Rapinoe.
At the end of a frenzied week, her two goals set up a meeting with England on Tuesday (3 p.m. ET, Fox). They put the U.S. 180 minutes away from a second consecutive world title. And they punctuated an absolutely glorious night for the sport.
Megan Rapinoe creates, and scores, early goal
The U.S. opener wasn’t all Rapinoe. But the lavender-haired superstar enabled the sequence that led to another early goal. And then she scored it.
It was Rapinoe’s quick thinking that snatched the defending champs a dangerous free kick. The ball had gone out of play on the left side. Rapinoe recouped it and, with urgency and might befitting a World Cup quarterfinal, hurled it down the line to Alex Morgan. Morgan, who had anticipated Rapinoe’s smart play, snuck behind the French defense. Griedge Mbock brought her down – a yellow card, and a foul on the edge of the box.
From the ensuing free kick …
Rapinoe’s low delivery slipped untouched, through a couple French legs, into the back of the net.
It was fortunate, but also expertly placed, down the notorious avenue between wall and defensive line, where a deflection can also find the back of the net. Instead, the mass of bodies blinded goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. And the Americans wheeled away in celebration.
A balanced first half
The U.S. looked far more prepared for the occasion early on. More accustomed to the pressure and nerves. “Some teams visit pressure,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis had said a day earlier. “We live there.” And their familiarity showed.
In the opening minute, Rapinoe danced by a couple French defenders and poked a ball into the path of Julie Ertz, whose 20-yard drive was held by Bouhaddi.
After the goal, the U.S. threatened down the left again. Rapinoe played a one-two with Sam Mewis. The U.S. goalscorer cut inside and fed Morgan, whose shot was tame.
The U.S. attack, overall, was very left-sided. Tobin Heath was invisible for much of the night. And as the half wore on, France grew into it. Kadi Diani was a constant menace down the right wing – though U.S. left back Crystal Dunn handled her remarkably well, given the circumstances.
And the U.S. center backs were as solid as could be. Becky Sauerbrunn, whose mistake gifted Spain a goal four days earlier, was almost flawless. She stuck to French striker Valerie Gauvin, blocking one of her efforts at the top of the area. Both Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper dealt with crosses well.
The Americans failed to find the possession that controlled previous games against weaker opposition. But they sat in a defined 4-1-4-1 defensive shape, with Ertz holding more than ever before. And they were relatively comfortable.
Rapinoe doubles the U.S. lead
The U.S. began the second half as it had the first. Mewis forced Bouhaddi into a diving save. Heath pounced on the rebound and drew a kick-save out of the French keeper with the follow-up.
From the subsequent corner, Morgan pounded a shot off Amandine Henry’s ankle. Two minutes later, a goalmouth scramble fizzled out.
Over the next 20 minutes, France began brewing danger, and looked like the better team. In the 58th minute, a back-post cross sent U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher scrambling across her goal line. The ball fell to French star Eugenie Le Sommer, but her shot rippled the outside of the net.
Moments later, Diani got in behind Dunn. But the lightening-quick American defender recovered to make a lunging block.
And then it was Pinoe time once again. Or, rather, it was front-three time. Morgan slid in Heath. Heath crossed behind Mewis. Rapinoe, lurking in space on the weak side, as composed as ever, slammed her finish through a crowd.
The goal appeared to send the U.S. to the semis. With less than 15 minutes remaining, Heath had the ball in the back of the net, but the goal was disallowed by the tightest of offside calls.
Then, in the 81st minute, towering French center back Wendie Renard made it 2-1.
Mewis, the tallest American player, had dropped into no-man’s land, and inadvertently kept Renard onside.
Minutes later, the French felt they should have had a penalty. Amel Majri’s cross struck Kelley O’Hara’s arm.
But the referee, correctly, waved away complaints. O’Hara’s arm was in a natural position. There was nothing “deliberate” about the handball. “It wasn’t like I was making my body big or anything,” O’Hara said postgame. “You never know, though, because [the rule is] a little sketchy sometimes, but thankfully they called it the right way.”
When the final whistle sounded, Morgan looked up to the sky and raised two fists. O’Hara leapt into her arms. U.S. substituted streamed onto the pitch, embracing teammates, filling the Parc des Princes field with joy.
But also with relief. Months, perhaps even years, had been building toward Friday. The USWNT, in so many ways, had bet on itself. And as it so often does, it cashed in.
Now, the most difficult part: Going again.
Tuesday, in Lyon, against England’s roaring Lionesses.
And if all goes to plan, once again after that.
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