Wednesday July 13th, 2011

MÖNCHENGLADBACH, Germany -- If you spend enough time listening to people around the world describe a U.S. soccer style, these are the words you hear: athletic, physical, strong, well-conditioned. Rarely does the term creative enter the conversation.

There's nothing wrong with physical superiority, as we learned once again on Wednesday when Abby Wambach's aerial mastery gave the U.S. the game-winning goal in its 3-1 World Cup semifinal win over France. But if the Americans are going to beat a highly-skilled Japan in Sunday's final, the biggest game of their lives, they're going to need another standout performance from their two most creative players: midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney.

Rapinoe and Cheney bring something different to the U.S. attack, and they were at the center of the action in a game that France often dominated possession-wise. Cheney, the U.S.' Swiss Army knife, did a bit of everything on Wednesday, scoring one goal, assisting on another and playing every position from flank midfielder to central midfielder to forward. "I don't know if they really want to drop me into the back line yet, but I'd like to stay in the attack," Cheney joked afterward.

Rapinoe, meanwhile, turned the game around when she entered as a sub in the 65th minute, going in at the left flank while Cheney moved from the left to the center. Confident on the ball, capable of using both feet and blessed with a special passing vision, Rapinoe injected energy into the U.S. offense. The stats will show that she had an assist on Alex Morgan's game-clinching goal, but Rapinoe's contribution was bigger than that. "The players coming off the bench made the difference," said coach Pia Sundhage.

The question now is this: Is there a reason both Rapinoe and Cheney couldn't start and play at the same time? Why not put Rapinoe on the left and Cheney in the center when the U.S. is going to need as much creativity as possible against Japan?

For the last several months Rapinoe-or-Cheney has been a zero-sum game when it comes to the starting lineup. Rapinoe was the starter until the first game of this World Cup, when Sundhage decided to insert Cheney in her spot. But Rapinoe hasn't sulked. "She knows she makes a difference, and that's important," says Wambach. "She's not sitting on the bench pouting. She's sitting on the bench planning."

Rapinoe would prefer to play 90 minutes ("I see myself as a starter," she says), but she has embraced her role as an impact sub. "It's more about making an immediate impact," Rapinoe said. "If you start a game, you can try to get into the flow a little bit. You have a little more time to feel it out. Obviously, when it's tied 1-1 and you come in, we didn't want to do the whole 30-minutes-of-overtime and five penalty kicks again. I found the rhythm pretty quickly today."

I try not to compare players from the '99 team and the '11 team, but Rapinoe reminds me of Brandi Chastain before her iconic penalty kick: a talented player who's charismatic as hell and is ready and waiting for that one breakout moment to ride the rocket of fame. If Hope Solo and Wambach already are stars, Rapinoe is a star waiting to happen. Her majestic cross to Wambach against Brazil was a good start, but if she does something like that in the final, watch out.

Plus, Rapinoe brings that creativity element that is rare in U.S. soccer. When I asked her about the stereotype of American players being big and strong, the 5-foot-7 Rapinoe looked at me, laughed and did a two-arm muscle flex. "Don't I have that?" she cracked. "I think I'm a bit more crafty. I like to use my brain just as much as I use my body. I'm not the fastest, I'm not the strongest, but I can use my abilities to overcome that."

Cheney has a similar spark. After playing for years as a forward, she's taking on two entirely new positions in this tournament. "Nothing surprises me anymore," Cheney said. "I've never played outside mid, and I've played outside midfield this whole tournament. Now I'm playing central mid [on Wednesday], and I knew we needed to keep possession."

Often the best U.S. player in this tournament, Cheney has been a dynamite taker of set pieces. At halftime against France, Wambach sought her out with a simple instruction: "Just put the ball on the back post and we'll get a goal." Sure enough, with the game tied in the 79th minute, Cheney floated a corner kick to the far post. French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz stayed rooted to her line, and Wambach smashed her header into the net for the winner.

"I saw her going back post, and she had this look on her face," said Cheney. "I just knew if I floated it up there she was going to beat whoever she was on."

Four days now stand between the U.S. and its date with history, and Sundhage indicated she might well consider making some change on Sunday. "I want to enjoy this moment, but we'll look back at the games we've played and try to figure out who the starting lineup is in the final," she said.

Whether Rapinoe is in there or not, she knows she will probably play a big role again. "It's so special as a footballer to be on one of the teams in the final and have that opportunity," she said. "Everything is at our feet at this moment. We just have to go and grab it."

The chance is coming on Sunday. It's the World Cup final. Games don't get any bigger than that.

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