LYON, France — With red-hot Megan Rapinoe sidelined by a sore hamstring, reserve forward Christen Press was a surprise starter in the United States’ epic World Cup semifinal win over England on Tuesday and made it count, scoring on a pinpoint header less than 10 minutes into the eventual 2-1 victory.
The goal helped put the Americans into Sunday’s finale here, giving the U.S. a chance to repeat as champions. That’s not the only reason the strike was special for Press, the normally bubbly 30-year-old who choked back tears as she spoke to reporters after the match.
“I was thinking of my mom,” said Press, whose mother, Stacy, passed away at age 58 earlier this year. “I think my whole career I played for my mom.”
Overcome with emotion, Press apologized and excused herself. As if she had anything to be sorry for.
On a team filled with what coach Jill Ellis likes to call “elite people,” Press still stands out. She’s one of the finest strikers on the planet, sure, but the Americans’ otherworldly depth has rendered her a cheerleader for most of this tournament. Tuesday marked just her second start in six games, and first in the knockout stage.
For some all-world athletes, that would be too much to take. Press doesn’t see it that way.
“I came into this World Cup with the understanding anything can happen,” the Los Angeles native said on the eve of the match. “I’m ready for any role.”
She proved it by stepping into a starring one; along with her early tally, she also set up Alex Morgan’s game-winner and never let England right back Lucy Bronze — who Lionesses coach Phil Neville called “the best player in the world” earlier in the week — get into the game. The English had been preparing for the more cunning and opportunistic Rapinoe. They didn’t have any answers for Press’ hard running, heart and soul, all-action game.
“She put in a great shift defensively,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said.
“She was stretching the back line,” Morgan added. “She had a tremendous game.”
To those who know her best, her contribution came as no surprise.
“She’s fantastic,” Ellis said. “I’ve said this: I have multiple starters in multiple positions. I knew and trusted she was ready for the moment because that’s what I’ve seen in the past, and her training focus has been fantastic.”
So has her attitude. On a team that is clearly as tight as any in the program’s glorious history, Press’ optimism is contagious. And it paid off handsomely at Stade de Lyon, where the U.S. was without its hottest player and, thanks to Press, still didn’t miss a beat.
“I think as a forward, you believe that the ball is going to find you on your run every time,” Press said, before being asked why she pointed to the sky during her goal celebration, before she had to retreat to the American dressing room. “That’s what your job is, is to be optimistic. And honestly, I feel like most of the time it doesn’t.
“But you have to keep believing,” she continued. “And you have to believe that it doesn’t matter if the stakes are higher, it doesn’t matter if the opponents are better. It’s just going to happen. You stay committed to what you’re doing and it’s going to happen, and it did. I think belief scored that goal.”
Considering all it meant, it’s one Press won’t ever forget.
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