American Original: How Megan Rapinoe stole the show at the World Cup

Dan WetzelColumnist

PARIS — Megan Rapinoe took the pitch Friday to win for the United States, not to make a statement to its President or his supporters that had been barraging her social media accounts.

This was about the team, she said. This was about her teammates. This was about the World Cup.

It wasn’t personal.

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Yet human nature is human nature and the significance of Rapinoe knocking in both goals in the Americans’ dramatic 2-1 victory over France here Friday night, pushing them into a Tuesday semifinal against England, wasn’t lost on her.

If you’re going to get into a fight with Donald Trump, well, that’s one heck of a way to close out the week.

“There is always satisfaction,” Rapinoe conceded after. “I don’t really get energized by haters and all of that. I figure there are more people who love me and I’m like, ‘Hey this is great.’ I am more energized by that and there was obviously tons of support, internally with the group and friends and family.”

Sure, but ...

“Yeah,” she said. “You want to come out and have a good performance.”

Rapinoe wasn’t going to gloat because that isn’t her. The entire scrap with Trump was unexpected but not unwelcome. She’s built for it. Months-old video of her saying she wouldn’t go to the “[expletive] White House” if the U.S. won re-emerged this week and Trump jumped on it. Some of his followers doubled down.

Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal match between France and USA. (Getty)
Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal match between France and USA. (Getty)

For Rapinoe, it wasn’t jarring or rattling or anything, though. She is fully comfortable and fully confident in her own skin — a 33-year-old openly gay activist who just happens to be one of the finest soccer players in the world.

If someone doesn’t like what she has to say, she just tends to keep saying it. Might be Donald Trump. Might be a FIFA official. Might be an anonymous Twitter account screaming at her.

“She stands up for what she believes in,” U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “I have a lot of respect for her.”

“Such a special person,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “People just gravitate to her. She is just a person that people want to listen to and learn from.”

“It’s almost like it just feeds her,” coach Jill Ellis said. “This stuff doesn’t bounce off her, it pushes her forward.”

It’s why over the last few days the Rapinoe-Trump dust-up wasn’t even really discussed around the team. Players reiterated their unconditional support for Rapinoe, and each other, but none of it seemed to matter. If there were now Americans who were so offended and sensitive that they were rooting France, of all teams, then so be it.

The one thing they knew is that Rapinoe would be there, as good as ever, as consistent as ever, as focused as ever. She’s unflappable.

“Megan’s a baller,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “She lives for these moments, this is when she thrives. It’s pretty incredible.”

And then she delivered. A brilliant Rapinoe throw-in sprung Alex Morgan into space and required a French defender to pull her down to prevent a breakaway. On the ensuing free kick, Rapinoe slipped the ball through traffic for goal No. 1.

Then, in the second half, she collected a Tobin Heath pass in front of the net and hammered it in to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead that it would not relinquish despite a late French goal. Just like that, amid the heat of a Parisian summer night, amid the noise of a social media political fight, amid the pressure of the World Cup, Rapinoe stood tall again.

“What a huge performance from the team,” she said, trying to shift the conversation to her teammates. “... It’s just phenomenal. It’s just an amazing moment for everyone.”

Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the U.S. team's second goal against France during their World Cup quarterfinal on Friday. (AP)
Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the U.S. team's second goal against France during their World Cup quarterfinal on Friday. (AP)

Again she was asked about being motivated by everyone who was against her. Again she brushed it off. She was too happy to care about that. She’s having quite a month — she’s scored the Americans’ last four goals and is two games away from winning consecutive World Cups.

Her ability as a player has often been overshadowed by star teammates, a style of play that focuses on setting others up and even her activism. There is no hiding her now.

“I’m [not motivated by] the haters but I’m motivated by people like me and people who are fighting for the same thing,” she said. “And I take more energy from that than proving everyone wrong all the time. That’s sort of draining to me.”

She was reminded it was Pride Month and Pride Day on Saturday in France. Yes, she noted, that was more like it.

“Go gays,” she said with a laugh. “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever. That’s science right there …

“Yeah, to be gay and fabulous during Pride Month at the World Cup is nice.”

That’s the kind of stuff that will enrage some Americans, but why should Rapinoe care about them? She’s a kid from small-town Redding, California, way up near the Oregon border, who has willed herself into a global star and an activist voice that is now being heard.

Her build is slight. Her impact is huge.

“She’s unreal,” Lavelle said. “I just feel she’s on a whole other level and it’s fun to learn from her on and off the field.”

She’s here to play but not to play nice. She won’t do anything that isn’t true to herself. She won’t sing along to the anthem. She won’t defer to the President. She won’t try to use a couple of goals to embolden herself, she’s already emboldened.

She’s an American Original, a free-thinker, a fighter, a personality as colorful as her hair.

Take it. Leave it. She doesn’t care.

“We love a good bit of confidence in America, don’t we?” she smiled.

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