REPORTING FROM REIMS, FRANCE — Based on their performances in practice, members of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team keep a list of who will take penalty kicks and in which order when the occasion arises, and it arose Monday for the first time in this tournament.
Megan Rapinoe tops that list, so she went to the penalty spot after Tobin Heath was pulled down by defender Maria Leon early in the Americans’ round-of-16 game against Spain at Stade Auguste-Delaune. Rapinoe’s sure-footed strike into the lower-left corner of the net gave the U.S. the lead in the seventh minute, a good launch to what the Americans anticipated would be their toughest challenge here. And it was, by every measure: Spain came to win, not to get consolation hugs from its more famous foes.
By the time Rapinoe got an improbable second chance to take a penalty kick, this time in the 75th minute of a game played in punishing heat and relentless physicality, Spain had pulled even because of a poor clearance by U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and a fine, curling shot by Jennifer Hermoso in the ninth minute. Rapinoe, playing in her third World Cup, lives for moments like these — but she almost passed this one up.
Alex Morgan stood over the ball until Spain midfielder Virginia Torrecilla’s kick to the shin of U.S midfielder Rose Lavelle was reviewed by the Video Assistant Referee, which has become the momentum-killing scourge of this tournament. When referee Katalin Kulcsar reaffirmed the call and players returned to the field, Rapinoe came out to take the kick.
“I took the first one and had given [Morgan] the second one. I thought maybe just change it up for the goalkeeper. Make her think about something more,” Rapinoe said. “And the coaches said, ‘We have a ranking for a reason. Get back in there and take it.’ ”
While most of her teammates thought longingly of cold showers and ice packs Monday night, Rapinoe was almost giddy about the prospect of playing France. She can’t wait for every bit of the noise, fuss and attention that will surround this meeting of the defending champion Americans and the on-the-rise French women, who prevailed 3-1 when the teams last met in a friendly in January.
“Hopefully a complete spectacle. Just an absolute media circus. I hope it’s huge and crazy. That’s what it should be,” Rapinoe said. “This is the best game. This is what everybody wanted. I think we want it. It seems like they’re up for it. You [media] guys, of course, are up for it, and all the fans. Maybe it will be a pretty even split between the fans in the stadium. We’ve been traveling pretty deep in this World Cup.
“I hope it’s just a total … circus. It’s going to be totally awesome. I think this is what everybody wants. These are the biggest games that you kind of dream about as a kid.”
Beating Spain wasn’t easy, and her penalty kicks aside, Rapinoe acknowledged her shortcomings Monday. She won few one-on-one battles and couldn’t fire up a team that seemed to be missing an emotional spark most of the game.
But in a situation that called for more grit than finesse, Rapinoe and her teammates found that additional dimension to their game. They hadn’t needed to push themselves against Thailand or Chile and were moderately nudged by Sweden in group play. They had to dig deep Monday, and they came up with the goods. They passed one tough test, and they hope it will sharpen them for the tougher test that's looming.
“I think we need and want all these games,” Rapinoe said. “When you get into the knockout round, it’s always so much more pressure and so much more tense out there. Everything matters. Every play matters. Every sort of wave of the game is important. So I think kind of halfway through the second half, it was like, ‘We need to take this up a notch.’ There’s quite a few of us that have been there, in these big games and sort of realize these moments, and that experience was really big for us today.”
It should be on-the-job education for the team’s 11 World Cup first-timers. “I think it’s great that some of those players that had never played in the World Cup experienced a tight game, experienced a game you’ve got to grind, experienced a game you got shut down. You’re up a goal, you fight back,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “All of this is part of what you need to be ready for the next opponent.”
It’s the opponent Rapinoe most wanted to see, though it's sometimes wise to be careful what you wish for. “I think this is the game that everyone had circled. I think it’s going to be a great match,” she said. “I hope it’s wild and crazy. I hope the fans are crazy and there’s tons of media around it and it’s just a big spectacle. I think this is incredible for the women’s game. You have two heavy hitters meeting in the final knockout round. I think that this is everything you want from these two sides.”