US soccer: Women back in World Cup final as Rapinoe comes to the rescue, again

Megan Rapinoe, a hero in the dramatic US soccer win over Brazil Sunday, helped turn the momentum in a hard-fought 3-1 win over France in the World Cup semifinals.

Ina Fassbender/REUTERS
Alex Morgan (l.) of the US scores a goal off an assist from Megan Rapinoe during the Women's World Cup semifinal soccer match against France in Mönchengladbach, Germany, Wednesday.

If the last two games of the World Cup have taught us anything, it is that the United States women’s national soccer team doesn’t really get down to business until Megan Rapinoe comes onto the field.

Her Hail Mary cross to save the US in the final minute of extra time against Brazil Sunday has already provided the tournament with perhaps its most indelible moment. Wednesday, in the semifinal game in Mönchengladbach, Germany, she went about the rather more mundane matter of destroying France.

When she entered the game in the 65th minute, the US had been second best for much of the afternoon. During the first 20 minutes of the second half, in particular, France was irresistible, pinning the US women deep in their own end, pass after pass pulling them apart like a hand-me-down sweater.

It was survival soccer, and the US was grateful simply to be tied.

Twenty-five minutes later, however, the US was celebrating a 3-1 win that seemingly would have grown only more emphatic the longer the game went on. The US will face Japan, who beat Sweden 3-1 in the other Wednesday game, in the final Sunday.

Rapinoe was the architect of the last goal, nearly responsible for another with virtually her first touch of the game, and generally appeared to wake her teammates from a 65-minute slumber – repeatedly lulled into a losing game of keep-away by the hypnotic passing of France’s Louisa Necib and Camille Abily.

For the ponderous Americans, Rapinoe was Red Bull in shin pads.

Her first significant action of the game was to do her best impression of a pit bull, snapping at the heels of French midfielders who previously had been allowed to saunter around the park at their leisure.

Her second was to nearly scorch a hole through French keeper Bérangère Sapowicz with a free kick that lacked only a sonic boom.

It was as though, with her platinum-haired impudence, she was reminding her teammates, “Hey, we are the United States!”

In some ways, that rallying call might not mean as much as it did 12 years ago, when names like Mia and Julie and Brandi sent the soccer world into raptures and opponents scurrying for cover. If anything, this World Cup has been about change – about a challenge to the sport’s world order and the rise of new nations like France.

For 65 minutes, it seemed as though that storyline might get its most fantastic conclusion: the US, women’s soccer royalty, upended by a team that had no pedigree in the women’s game. A lightning-strike US goal in the 9th minute, redirected into the net deftly by Lauren Cheney, led not to France’s collapse but to a US retreat.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy might as well have declared the center of the field a no-fly zone for the American women, so disjointed was their play. The French triangle of Necib, Abily, and Gaëtane Thiney intercepted American passes with surprising ease.

As the game wore on, the trio pushed farther and farther forward, putting the US defense in a vice. When the French goal came – a teasing cross that froze US keeper Hope Solo and found its way into the net – it was less a thing of beauty than a token of France’s utter superiority. A goal simply had to come.

But for all France’s artful passing, the US is still the better team, and the women of both sides seemed to need Rapinoe’s electric jolt to remember that.

With the rapidity of a light switch being flipped, the US began moving the ball faster and using their speed to open seams in the suspect French defense. It was as though the Americans had at last found the gear shift, and France could not cope.

Admittedly, the go-ahead goal in the 79th minute was – like Sunday – the product of an opposing goalkeeper flapping hopelessly at an American cross. Abby Wambach was on hand to head in the free ball, as Abby Wambach always is.

The third goal, when it came three minutes later, had a greater degree of difficulty and artistry – Rapinoe prodding the ball forward to a streaking Alex Morgan, who sent a delightful chip over the advancing French goalkeeper. The score was only 3-1, but the US suddenly – and finally – were running rampant.

In a World Cup where the dominant theme has been parity, perhaps that was as it should have been – the crowned queens of the sport, twice world champions, three times Olympic champions, pushed to their limits by an underdog that had never before even advanced to the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

For the moment, at least, the old order is still on top of the heap.

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