Nobody said it would be easy for the USWNT. Actually, that’s probably not accurate. You may have had friends, family or co-workers to whom you broached the subject of this summer’s World Cup, and they may have offered the opinion that it would be easy, because they knew the US Women was the best team in the world – since they won the last World Cup – and they would then continue on being the best team in the world, presumably in perpetuity throughout time.
What a terrible way to look at the world. Even if you believed, as many did, that the US were the best squad going into this tournament, to think that they were then guaranteed victory reveals a shocking thought process of even the most casual fan. To not even believe in bad breaks or breakout stars, lucky bounces or unlucky draws, fortunate calls or unfortunate injuries. Why even watch sports if you’re so married to the belief that the best unit always wins?
And we’re not talking about the real fans here, the ones that believe through thick and thin. Nor do we mean the children, who will believe in their heroes no matter what. This is about the Professional Sports Fan Guys, who listen to the radio call-in fests and watch the argument shows who believe that they, by proxy, also have an informed opinion.
Instead of being honest and saying “I’m really not up on that, but I’d appreciate if someone could smarten me up!” they declare to know everything because the only thing they bother to listen to in the car is the Boozer and the Hawk Phone-In Debacle and don’t have the good sense to just turn on some Fleetwood Mac.
US Women down Sweden
So, nobody that knows what in the hell they were talking about said it would be easy. And it wasn’t, which it shouldn’t have been, since it was a World Cup after all. After marauding their way through two group games they should have won handily and did, the US faced Sweden in a game they could have taken off, and thereby taken an easier path through the knockout stage. No dice, as the USWNT gave the Swedes a professional 2-0 handling.
Rapinoe Torpedoes Spain
This lined the US up for a rough road to glory. First up, in the Round of 16 was Spain, who attempted the difficult strategy of fouling, and fouling and fouling again until the referee is tired of blowing the whistle. It didn’t work. Two Megan Rapinoe penalty goals bookended Spain’s lone effort, and the US were through to the round of eight.
USWNT move past France
France, the hosts, waited in the quarterfinals in a match that on paper should have been the final but was played on grass instead. France at least played the US straight up, looking for a fight and getting one. In the fifth minute, Megan Rapinoe threw a free kick into the area and got it through more legs than a chorus line, then ran to the sideline and posed like she meant it. She didn’t. She couldn’t have. The second, however, she meant.
In the sixty-sixth minute, a cross somehow got all the way from one end to the other, and Rapinoe slotted it home coolly. France got one back, but it was a game the US rode out.
Semi Final Against England
In the semifinal, the US faced England, in a game that also could have stood as a final on its own merits. The prevailing storyline was that Megan Rapinoe was standing on the sideline during warmups in full gear but not participating. It turned out she was nursing a hamstring injury.
Even without her, the US scored nine minutes in. England replied ten minutes later, because nobody ever said it would be easy. Alex Morgan made it 2-1 30 minutes in and mimicked drinking tea. A VAR check denied an England equalizer in the second half for offside, and a questionable VAR given penalty kick was miraculously denied by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, and the US was through to the final, not easily.
Having already faced two finals-worthy matches, it would be easy to believe the US might fall victim to fatigue, and in the early going it seemed they might. Netherlands seemed eager to bore the US and everyone watching to sleep for the first half and then spring a counter in the second to steal the win, or at least drag the final to penalties and let the chips fall where they may. But an errant challenge by the Dutch brought Megan Rapinoe to the spot again in the 60th minute, and the US captain put it where it needed to be.
A marauding Rose Lavelle ten minutes later set the champagne on ice. Despite the Dutch best efforts to make it a match, they were never on the level of the French or the English which the US had previously survived to get to this point, and so the celebrations had begun well before the game was done.
Megan Rapinoe Wins Golden Boot
The common thread you’ll see in the knockout rounds was Megan Rapinoe, whether she was playing or not. That’s because she was the most important US player, whether she was playing or not.
There was what Rapinoe represented, in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue before the World Cup ever began, by being, – somehow – the first openly gay woman ever featured in its anachronistic pages. There were the words, spoken by Rapinoe, about whether or not the team would travel to the White House. This White House, specifically. There was the reply, by the president who occupies the White House, and his fans. Some saying Megan Rapinoe should shut up and win first before talking.
Then there was Megan Rapinoe, standing with the Golden Boot, as the World Cup’s top scorer. And the Golden Ball, as the World Cup’s best player. And the World Cup, as part of the champions.
Nobody said it would be easy for Megan Rapinoe. And it’s not about to get easier. But heavy is the head that wears the crown of being the best.