World Cup reveals source of strength for Rapinoe, USWNT

Dan WetzelColumnist

PARIS — First name: United. Last name: Team.

For the United States women's national team, that identity never appears to waver, not in the most pressured moments of this World Cup, not when it's under assault on the field or off, not when individual players are forced into uncomfortable or unfamiliar assignments, including even support roles from the bench.

There was a thought that when Megan Rapinoe got into a political dust-up with Donald Trump, unleashing Trump supporters against the American team, that fissures might show or the team's focus might waver.

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Nothing close occurred in Friday's 2-1 semifinal victory over France, that sets up a 3 p.m. ET Tuesday clash with England in the semifinals.

"It's just noise," forward Alex Morgan said. "That's how we approach it."

If anything, they were more unified.

It was no different than asking Crystal Dunn, a natural attacking forward, to handle the toughest defensive assignments, or Carli Lloyd, the hero of the 2015 World Cup, to become a late-game reserve, or a stout defense to sacrifice themselves black and blue blocking shots.

This is a team of immense talent, no question. This is also a team that's first, last and always.

"We have such a tight group. It's really incredible," Rapinoe said. "It's cliche to say ... but we just have a group that wants to win."

Indeed, it can be cliche. But it's also quite common for national teams — essentially all-star teams — in any sport to suffer from a lack of togetherness. There's big egos. The stakes are high. There are new roles.

And the spotlight is bright, which, for the United States, includes championship-or-bust expectations and, this week, featured Rapinoe sparring with Trump — a story that spun the outside narrative of the club in an unexpected direction.

United States' Megan Rapinoe, third right, reacts with teammate Julie Ertz during the Women's World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between France and the United States at Parc des Princes in Paris, France, Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
United States' Megan Rapinoe, third right, reacts with teammate Julie Ertz during the Women's World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between France and the United States at Parc des Princes in Paris, France, Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Yet the team appeared unfazed, rallying around its teammate and, according to the players, mostly just putting it all out of mind. "It's not even on our radar," midfielder Rose Lavelle said.

If something doesn't involve winning the World Cup, they don't have much care or time for it. And if some Trump fans were now vowing to root against the Americans, oh well. It wouldn't impact the scoreboard.

"We take care of ourselves, we take care of each other," said defender Kelley O'Hara. "We keep a very tight-knit group. We kind of call it, 'the bubble.' Listen, regardless of what is happening outside, we always have each other's backs inside this team, inside the lines, outside the lines. It's not about all of that. When we step on the field we have each other 100 percent, 90-plus minutes."

Rapinoe was just one part of it. She delivered two goals and a number of brilliant plays, but so did nearly the entire roster.

Consider Dunn, a 5-foot-1 speedster and former MVP of the National Women's Soccer League thanks to her tremendous finishing instincts and ability.

Yet on a loaded roster, her route to the field is playing defense, becoming an outside back and chasing down some of the most skilled players in the world. On Friday it was France's Kadidiatou Diani, who can make even the most experienced defender look foolish. Yet Dunn has accepted her role and spent countless hours studying film to learn her new position. She came up huge on Friday.

"Dunny was just on point," coach Jill Ellis said. "She was as good as I've seen her defending."

Dunn was part of an entire backline that sold out for victory. France attempted 20 shots in the game, but only five made it on goal, with many blocked by U.S. defenders willing to take a beating. O'Hara took one to the stomach. Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn and Samantha Mewis stepped into everything. Julie Ertz was everywhere.

"The grit and heart and focus and tenacity it takes to do that is just tremendous," Rapinoe marveled.

Even Alex Morgan, the center forward, took a ball unexpectedly off her head while defending. She needed a moment to recover but then played with the same relentless spirit.

"Regardless, if you block a shot, intercept a pass, get a body on someone — we kind of brought that," said Morgan, who didn't score for the fourth consecutive game but played well.

"In a World Cup you need to be able to win pretty and win dirty," Sauerbrunn said. "Sometimes you just have to put in a hard shift and tonight you put in a hard shift. … I am just super proud of the team for gutting this out."

The team runs a legit 17 to 18 position players deep, but only 10 can be on the field at once and only 14 total players can play at all in a game. That's led to tough choices by Ellis, but also acceptance by the players.

Lloyd, for instance, has settled into a late-game substitute role, despite her previous heroics, and even scored three goals earlier in this tournament. Lindsey Horan is one of the finest players in the world, yet Ellis feels Mewis is in better form. Horan, instead, is contributing where she can.

Mallory Pugh may be the Americans’ future go-to goal scorer, and she certainly came to France hoping this would be a breakout tournament for her. She hasn't gotten off the bench in a couple games, but teammates say her attitude in training, like everyone else’s, has been stellar.

"Our bench is huge every night," Rapinoe said. "All the players who didn't get to play, and there are some players who might not get to play for the rest of the tournament, they are just as important as everyone else. They're in it. That helps a lot … they are screaming at you and encouraging you."

It's easy for teams like this to splinter, for hard feelings to fester, for distractions to divide. The World Cup is a long grind, seven games, five weeks, and that doesn't account for the camps and pre-tournament tour, the sacrifice and the physical and mental expenditures.

This is a diverse group of women — racially, politically, geographically. All religions and personalities, all perspectives and personalities. Everyone thinks they should play, star, score. It's why squads with the best players often fall short.

This one still has two games to go to capture consecutive World Cups. It won't be easy. It isn't supposed to be. Nothing is guaranteed.

Except it appears they'll do it together, though, win or lose.

United. Team.

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