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PARIS — It is an old coaching ploy – in a run-up to a big game, create a storyline, or even a controversy, that shifts media, fan and even player focus off of a subject where you might be vulnerable and onto one where you are strong.
By controlling the narrative, you put all the pressure on the broadest of shoulders. Sometimes that even requires the coach becoming the center of attention.
In that regard, Donald Trump, who claims to be a “big fan” of the United States women’s national team, may have actually proved to be of great help to the squad ahead of its high-stakes, high-pressure, highly anticipated Women’s World Cup quarterfinal game Friday (3 p.m. ET) against France.
On Wednesday, he responded to a months-old-but-recently-resurfaced video of forward Megan Rapinoe declaring she would not go to the White House if invited. Rapinoe has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s policies (although she declined to get into it during the tournament) and for a stretch, knelt during the playing of the national anthem.
Trump responded via Twitter that she should focus on winning first (he wrongly thought the video was new) and demanded she act in a way that he believes is respectful to the flag and the White House. Rapinoe responded Thursday by reiterating she wouldn't visit Trump in the White House, although she declined to ramp up the battle so as to remain focused on the game.
It was a good, and completely harmless, little kerfuffle.
Trump, it seems likely, quickly moved onto to some other battle. Meanwhile, Rapinoe, an unflappable veteran, responded without a care in the world. She didn’t appear fazed by what Trump had tweeted, or will tweet, about her.
In the meantime, almost all the discussion heading into the Americans’ biggest game since getting knocked out of the 2016 Olympics has been on this subject – Rapinoe v. Trump.
Mostly ignored have been a slew of questions and concerns that might actually rattle the Americans.
The at-times shaky goaltending of Alyssa Naeher in the round of 16 victory against Spain.
The offense’s lack of a shot on net, let alone a goal, during the run of play in that same game.
Lineup rotations and playing time, which remain in flux due to the Americans’ tremendous depth of talent.
The fact the U.S. hasn’t defeated France in three years, holding an 0-2-1 record against them, including a 3-0 defeat in January.
The heat of Paris this week, which should extend to the game, where the French may enjoy an intimidating home-crowd advantage (despite the sizable amount of traveling American fans).
The general pressure that comes from being a USWNT player, where total victory is the only acceptable result.
And so on.
Virtually every less-than-desirable storyline and discussion point that could flare up has been ignored. Coach Jill Ellis likes to describe the team operating in “a bubble” and ignoring outside noise, but some of that always breaks through.
In this case, she might not have been able to design a better week of coverage.
Megan Rapinoe scrapping with Donald Trump? Who cares?
It’s better than lots of chatter about whether Carli Lloyd or Christian Press or Mallory Pugh should get more playing time or why the midfield failed to connect with Alex Morgan against Spain or whatever Hope Solo most recently criticized the team about.
And that’s thanks to Trump. Neither Rapinoe nor Ellis sought to make this an issue this week. It was just an old video that sprung back up. But when it became news, they embraced it.
“We all support Megan,” Ellis said. “She knows that. We have each other’s back in there.”
Call him the Motivator-in-Chief.
Like Trump, Rapinoe has a big, bold and extremely self-confident personality. It’s unlikely any of her teammates worried that she was going to be emotionally or mentally fazed by him or his supporters. If anything, it might help her.
Maybe none of this matters in the game. Maybe it does. It would be impossible to quantify either way. The U.S. could win Friday without Trump’s tweets playing a role. Or they could lose. Getting consistent scoring chances against a formidable French defense will be a bigger factor.
But coaches love to minimize distractions and Ellis is a coach. There has to be a reason media access, especially to players, is so limited during the tournament.
And so, for that, Trump may have proven to be an unexpected asset. By putting all the attention on a single player – a player that can easily handle it – the oxygen was sucked away from just about everything else, allowing everyone else to focus on preparation.
“For our players, there is only one purpose, one mission why we’re here,” Ellis said. “Comments, media, whatever, it’s always been something we can block out pretty easily.”
It’s even easier when the “comments, media, whatever” aren’t about unproven goalies or playing time or the pressure of expectations.
“At the end of the day, on the training grounds, in the meeting rooms, [our] focus has been incredible,” Ellis said.
It may not be how Jill Ellis expected to achieve such a thing this week, but here’s guessing, like any great coach in any sport, she’ll take it.
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