Since its basically human nature to worry about things you can’t control, fans of the United States women’s national soccer team were a bit stressed Tuesday when the purple-haired powerhouse, Megan Rapinoe, was not on the pitch stretching with her teammates prior to their World Cup semifinal against England.
Obviously, something was wrong with USA’s spiritual leader, likely something terrible because you knew it would require a significant injury to keep a player with Rapinoe’s gumption out a match of so much consequence.
And the anxiety only increased when initially forays about Rapinoe’s condition were deflected by the team before the match kicked off.
The first thing that came to mind: Was Rapinoe seriously injured and out for the remainder of the tournament? Second: Was the USA deep enough at striker to compensate for her loss?
As it turned out, the concern was unjustified on both fronts. Rapinoe was just resting a slightly strained hamstring. And the player who replaced her, Christen Press, scored the first goal in USA’s nail-biting 2-1 win over England.
“It’s not really even a strain,” Rapinoe said of her right hamstring after the game. “But not really able to go today. [The team] just felt like it wasn’t going to hold up. We have been talking about this depth that we have for months and months and months and all throughout the tournament. It was on full display tonight.
“We just felt like that was the best option, not only for myself but for the team.”
Rapinoe said she suffered the injury in the second half of the quarterfinal against France. But she refused to relent, staying in the game to play through her injury before finally being lifted in the 87th minute after scoring both goals in the 2-1 win.
Now the good news: Rapinoe is expected to be in the lineup on Sunday when the Americans attempt to win another championship.
“I’m expecting to be fit for the final and ready to go,” Rapinoe said. “It’s getting better.”
The U.S. will play the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between the Netherlands and Sweden. The U.S. already defeated Sweden 2-0 in group play.
When a side is as imposing as the USA’s, critics tend to dig a little deeper in search of fissures. There’s no doubt the Americans front line and defense are state-of-the-art. So most of the attention has been placed on goalie Alyssa Naeher, the suggestion being she was the weak link.
But without Rapinoe to compensate for any mistakes, Naeher emerged in a big way Tuesday by making a save on Steph Houghton’s penalty kick in the 84th minute to preserve the one-goal margin.
“She saved the team,” Becky Sauerbrunn said.
According to the New York Times, Naeher tried her best to retain her focus in the moments immediately after the save, yelling “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go” at her teammates once they circled her in celebration after the save. She was trying to avoid a delay penalty.
‘”I just tried to let instincts take over at that point,” Naeher said of the save. “Just try to get a good jump on it, get a good read, hope to make a save and I was able to do that.”
The pressure on Naeher was expected and it began to build long before the tournament. After all, she was playing the position Briana Scurry and Hope Solo perfected before her and any appearance that the performance level had dipped would not be accepted. Even Scurry cast aspersions when asked what she considered a potential weakness in the team. She chose goal.
“People are constantly trying to say something negative, just her constantly living in the shadow of Hope Solo,” Ashlynn Harris, the backup goalkeeper, told The Times after the game. “I’ll tell you what, that’s a damn good goalkeeper in there that doesn’t get enough credit. She has showed up this tournament time and time again for this team, and I hope it silenced a lot of people.”
Naeher’s play has offered little justification for the doubt that’s shadowed her. Not once during Group or elimination play has she allowed a questionable goal, and when she has been asked to step up, like she was on the penalty kick on Tuesday, she has been equal to the task.
“I feel like she hasn’t really had moments like these to come into herself,” said Rapinoe. “For her to have this moment, for her personally, I think, is just so special and is one of those things she’ll never forget.”
As for Press, she alleviated whatever pressure was on herself in the 10th minute. Kelly O’Hara offered a perfect cross from the right side and Press was there to head it in with a perfectly orchestrated thrust.
After England scored to tie the match, Alex Morgan, on her 30th birthday, put the USA on top in the 31st first minute, heading in a cross from Lindsay Horan.
It was Morgan’s sixth goal of the tournament but her first since scoring five in the opening match for the United States, a 13-0 rout of Thailand.
Now all that’s left for the USA is one more win. We know Rapinoe will be there. And now USA fans understand Naeher will be, as well.