WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Megan Rapinoe wasn’t on all the magazine covers entering the Women’s World Cup. She’ll never be the first U.S. player that opposing teams prepare to stop. She freely admits she shoots too much, and sometimes she tries stuff on the field that makes her coaches crazy. At one point on Monday she drove into the box and misfired so badly that it was almost a whiff.
But you know what? When you try stuff, and you have the best technical ability on the U.S. national team, you can pull off some incredible things, too. Rapinoe put her personal stamp on every one of the U.S.’s goals in its 3-1 Women’s World Cup victory over Australia on Monday, and she did so in different ways each time, scoring two of them and helping create the other.
“I probably shoot … too much,” Rapinoe said with an assassin’s smile afterward. “I joke with my teammate Kim Little in Seattle: She waits until she has the perfect shot. No matter what kind of shot it is for me, I’ll take it.”
U.S. Soccer’s merry gunslinger was at it again in the first half, firing away from distance and putting the U.S. ahead 1-0 on a fortunate deflection that couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t shot. But Rapinoe didn’t stop there. In the second half, with the game tied at 1-1 and the Americans needing someone, anyone, to make a big play, Rapinoe spotted Sydney Leroux racing down the left flank and fed her a terrific pass.
Leroux barreled around her defender and cut the ball back to Christen Press, whose inch-perfect finish—placement over power—proved to be the game-winner.
Then, for the coup de grace, Rapinoe worked the Australian back line to cut left and finish with ruthless efficiency.
“My best Messi impression,” she joked later. “A much slower version of his.”
Rapinoe admitted the U.S. was below its standards for much of the game—“I don’t think we played that well,” she said—but there were enough of those special moments of quality to make the difference. “A couple bits of class,” as Australia coach Alen Stajcic put it. And while Rapinoe had her share, they weren’t the only ones for the Americans.
There was Leroux’s full-bore run, answering the halftime call for her to get to the endline more often. Her pass to Press, who had raced over from the opposite flank, wasn’t by accident.
“We’re always working on that cutback,” Leroux said, “so I know she’s going to be there.”
There was Press’s one-time strike, making up for her otherwise off game. And there were the two monster first-half saves by goalkeeper Hope Solo, which kept the U.S. in the match. On the first, in the fifth minute, Solo parried a blast by Emily Van Egmond off the crossbar.
“I actually thought it was going to hit my gloves and still hit the net,” said Solo, “so I was more relieved than anything.”
Eight minutes later, right after Rapinoe’s first goal, Solo somehow stopped a point-blank shot by Samantha Kerr off a free kick.
“Bar a couple saves by Hope, we might be down 3-1 in the first half,” said Rapinoe.
Solo’s performance spoke louder than any of her words could, though she added for good measure that she was “perfectly focused” despite Sunday’s ESPN report that broke new public details of her domestic abuse case.
Those weren’t the only moments of class from this U.S. team. With the game still tied early in the second half, defender Becky Sauerbrunn raced back to make a goal-saving defensive play on a streaking Kerr. Then there was the improved second-half midfield play by the U.S.’s Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, who answered coach Jill Ellis’s halftime request to get stuck in and win more 50-50 balls to start transitions.
Good teams can win games when they aren’t playing their best, often by relying on those moments of class. The U.S. players were under no false impressions about their overall performance, though. They need to improve as the tournament progresses.
Said Rapinoe: “I think we can be a lot better in possession and just a lot more confident on the ball. I think we’re better than what we played today and got caught kind of going long when we need to settle it down. The times when we did settle it down and had good spells of possession, you could see how we could knock it around and be dangerous. But we need to do a lot more of that.”
When the U.S. meets Sweden here on Friday, Solo wants to see a lot of things get better.
"You saw today we went direct, we didn’t play through the midfield. And not just offensively, but defensively we broke down a bit in the midfield," she said. "So we have to tighten up the gaps, we have to compress the field a bit more, and we have to move the ball with pace and rhythm and get them out of shape. Hopefully our set-pieces are better defensively and offensively. We didn’t perform on set-pieces today either.”
Message: They know. They know they didn’t play that well. They know the U.S. has a history of choppy World Cup starts. And they know they’re capable of “evolving every minute” in this tournament, as Abby Wambach put it.
It certainly helps when you have players like Rapinoe who can alter games in an instant.
“She’s got ice running through her veins,” said Ellis of Rapinoe. “But a lot of passion inside her. She’s a player, a game-changer. That’s what makes her special. Sometimes when you have teams that are neutralizing each other, you look for those special players to step up.”
Megan Rapinoe may not be on all the magazine covers right now. But she was front and center when it mattered on Monday.