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Soccer

Column: Women’s World Cup: Megan Rapinoe thrives in spotlight to help send U.S. into semifinals

Megan Rapinoe celebrates
U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe celebrates with her teammates after scoring against France during a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match in Paris on Friday.
(Franck Fife / AFP / Getty Images)

This was much more than a soccer game, though that aspect of the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal between the U.S. and France on Friday lived up to the hype and anticipation created when the defending champion Americans secured this matchup against the hard-challenging host Bleues.

It was a chance to showcase some of the best athletes in a sport that’s pursuing a bigger audience and wider support to fuel its development, an opportunity on a hot summer night to grab the world’s attention and envision hard-fought, tense contests like this one unfolding on soccer pitches around the world in years to come. French fans chanted. U.S. fans sang. It was the best possible advertisement for the game.

And pink-haired American forward Megan Rapinoe, who thrives in situations that might paralyze lesser players, made it a night to remember for her team and herself by scoring both goals in the 2-1 victory that advanced the U.S. to a semifinal meeting with England on Tuesday in Lyon. “C’est magnifique ce soir,” Rapinoe said, honoring the host nation by speaking French to praise the magnificent atmosphere at Parc des Princes. “It’s everything you want.”

According to FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, Rapinoe is the first player to score four straight goals for the U.S. at a Women’s World Cup and the first player to score two or more goals in successive games after she scored on two penalty kicks in a similarly tight and bruising 2-1 victory over Spain in the round of 16 on Monday. That alone would have made for a busy week.

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But in between the game against Spain and her fierce effort on Friday she spent time explaining and defending comments she’d made months ago to Eight by Eight magazine — which released the interview only this week — including an expletive she used to emphasize her opposition to visiting the White House if the team were to be invited.

Her words drew the ire of President Trump, who nonetheless said on Twitter he’d invite the team win or lose. She also was criticized for potentially being disruptive. Rapinoe, who knelt during the national anthem several years ago in support of Colin Kaepernick but now stands silently with her hands at her sides, apologized for the expletive but not for her sentiments. She reiterated her position on Thursday and vowed to focus on soccer.

She kept her word. “I think so. Don’t you think so?” U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle said, smiling. “It was not even on our radar. We’re not worried about that at all. It’s not a distraction for us at all. We fully support her. We love her and we have her back.

“She’s unreal. She’s on a whole other level and it’s so fun to play with her and be able to learn from her on and off the field.”

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Rapinoe was active from the start on Friday, seizing control by will and skill. She scored in the fifth minute on a free kick, awarded to the U.S. after Alex Morgan had been pulled down, and again in the 65th minute, on a play made possible by a pass from Morgan to Tobin Heath, who found Rapinoe dashing in on the left side.

“She’s been fantastic this whole tournament. But she’s really been a light shining in big games,” midfielder Julie Ertz said. “I’m sure glad she’s on my team. Her finishing, I’ve seen it the past two years but in the past two months it’s just been extraordinary. It’s world-class and I’m just honored to be on her team.”

Ertz also said Rapinoe hadn’t created or become a distraction. “She’s focused on the game and she wants to be the best teammate that she can,” Ertz said. “She had two fantastic goals today and I can’t thank her enough for those.”

As far as defender Becky Sauerbrunn can tell, Rapinoe is flustered by only one thing. “Injustice,” Sauerbrunn said. “In soccer terms, no, nothing really rattles her. I think she thrives under that pressure and she’s just willing to take on all these things and still be able to perform and kind of shove it to everyone that doesn’t believe in what she believes in. She just takes it all and she goes with it and she’s still able to perform and stay true to who she is.”

Rapinoe said she wasn’t inspired on Friday by negative comments made after the interview became public. “I don’t really get energized by haters and all that,” she said.

She made the difference because it’s her instinct on the soccer pitch to step up when the team needs her most. “It’s almost like it just, I don’t know, feeds her. She’s just a big personality both on and off the pitch and I think she honestly thrives in these moments,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “She loves and lives for those moments.”

Friday’s game was a collection of great moments and a great scene. “A good healthy, hostile crowd,” Rapinoe said. “Our fans were amazing. They screamed their little hearts out. They were no match for the Frenchies tonight. It was unbelievable. Obviously there was so much energy in the stadium tonight. France had a lot of the ball so that energized their fans of course. Just such a big performance by our group tonight, obviously.

“We didn’t have the best night on the ball but the focus defensively and the willingness and the discipline to do what we did tonight is tremendous, and we were ruthless in our chances. Moving on to the next round, that’s really all that matters. It was a game that we’ll never forget here in Paris.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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