REIMS, France — It was, possibly and unexpectedly, the most Megan Rapinoe of moments.
Knockout round here, tie game, 1-1, against Spain, and the United States was awarded a late penalty kick courtesy of a trip of Rose Lavelle. The Americans have a plan for moments like this – the coaching staff ranks the players on penalty kicks – and it involves Rapinoe stepping up to the dot.
Rapinoe isn’t just the most adept at hitting them. At 33 and with nerves of steel, she’s the ideal for what coach Jill Ellis calls “the pressure cooker” of such a situation.
Yet it was Alex Morgan who was holding the ball. It was Alex Morgan who was going to take the shot. It was Alex Morgan who wanted the ball and the game. And it was Rapinoe who was fine with that. She’d already scored on one penalty, in the seventh minute, and rather than demand her rightful chance to score again or grab her chance for glory, she was willing to step back into the shadows and let Morgan shine.
She even figured it was a good idea.
“I thought, maybe just change it up for the goalkeeper and make her think about it a little more," Rapinoe said. "Alex is obviously very good at them."
During a delay for VAR review though, the coaches restored order. Morgan may be the biggest star and most prolific goal-scorer on the team, but with everything on the line, they want Megan Rapinoe shooting.
“The coaches said we have a ranking for a reason,” Rapinoe said. “Get back in there and take it.”
“It’s ultimately the coaches’ decision,” Morgan said. “So the ball went back to Rapinoe.”
Rapinoe took it, scored it and the Americans advanced 2-1 over a tough, physical Spanish team. Up next, a mega-matchup with France in the quarterfinals Friday (3 p.m. ET) in Paris.
For about a decade now Megan Rapinoe has been one of the very best players in the world. Yet she’s also been more than comfortable playing somewhat of a supporting role on the world’s consistently best and most high-profile team, or at least as much of a supporting role as a player of her magnitude can.
When it comes to her on-field performance, she defers to teammates, talks them up in the media, makes more of the memorable crosses and set-up plays. It’s not that her play is missed. She’s too good for that. Besides, her often jet-white – or in the case of Monday, purple – hair is iconic.
She isn’t Morgan though. Or Carli Lloyd. Or Hope Solo. Or whomever. At least not with many fans.
And yet … in an unusual spin, this is not someone afraid of the spotlight or someone seeking to be overlooked. While she may be the ultimate team player, she is a fearless and outspoken figure when it comes to equality, politics or anything she deems an injustice worth fighting against.
She will gladly stand out for that.
If anything, her unwavering statements on Donald Trump, FIFA powerbrokers, U.S. Soccer’s own leadership and what to do during the national anthem have colored public perception so deeply that her actual game may not be fully appreciated.
Some love it. Some hate it. She’s good with that. It comes with the territory and she isn’t backing down. Ever.
Yet she is far more than the activist athlete that some see her as. It may make more sense that a person willing to challenge the powerful would be the one wrestling that ball out of Morgan’s hand, but Rapinoe is true to herself, always. She’ll step up. She’ll step back.
Many of the greatest wins U.S. Soccer has produced have come, in part, because of Rapinoe’s skill and focus. It’s why in these lonely moments, she gets the call and her teammates are happy to see her with the game on her foot.
“I couldn’t be more confident,” Samantha Mewis said. “Trust her 100 percent.”
“She’s clutch,” Lavelle said. “I’ve watched it my whole life and to now be out on the field with her is incredible.”
Mewis is 26. Lavelle is 24. They’ve come to expect everything Rapinoe brings – even on a night when she admittedly wasn’t at her best, there remained relentless effort, notable battles won and finally a sense of calm when it mattered most.
“We practice these a lot,” Rapinoe said. “ ... Obviously you can never replicate having a knockout round game on the line.”
That’s exactly why there was never a doubt from the coaches, even if there was from Rapinoe, who should take the shot.
“That mental piece,” Ellis said. “You can have all the tactics in the world, [but] that essence of self-belief is critical. And these players like Rapinoe and these guys who have been around a bit longer have lived in those moments and I think it’s fair to say they want those moments, they embrace those moments.
“When the game is on the line, you want to feel like it is a changing moment that you are in,” Ellis continued. “And I think that is a big part in terms of embracing that moment.”
Game on the line, Rapinoe was willing to fade back, be the supportive teammate and let someone else win it. Then, when told it was her responsibility and ordered to shoot, she buried another one in the back of the net like she never had a doubt.
On a hot, tense, potential knockout night in France, it was Megan Rapinoe, somehow all rolled into one.
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