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Megan Rapinoe Thrives at Center of USA vs. France Circus She Wanted

Megan Rapinoe wanted a circus for USA-France, and she's starring in the center of it, but amid all the tweets, responses and White House reaction, the USWNT's leader keeps her calm as she grows into the occasion.

PARIS — In some ways, Megan Rapinoe’s entire career has led up to Friday’s mammoth Women's World Cup quarterfinal showdown between the U.S. and France (3 p.m. ET, FOX, Telemundo). Yes, she has already won a Women's World Cup title and an Olympic gold medal, but Rapinoe now finds herself at the center of the discussion in nearly every way possible.

There’s the soccer side, of course: Rapinoe scored both U.S. goals (from the penalty spot) in Monday’s 2-1 round-of-16 victory against Spain. She was admittedly not at her best in open play during that game, but she touched the ball constantly on the left wing. And if the U.S. is going to beat France on Friday, Rapinoe will have to be a major factor.

Few who watched the 2016 Olympics would have believed that three years later the 33-year-old Rapinoe would be a U.S. starter and young winger Mallory Pugh would not—but that happened because Rapinoe made an unexpected career resurgence. She deserves to be here as a central figure in her third Women's World Cup, eight years after her miracle pass to Abby Wambach in a quarterfinal victory against Brazil produced one of the greatest goals in U.S. soccer history.

But there’s a lot more than the soccer side that has made this week a defining one in Rapinoe’s career. On Tuesday, the day after she proclaimed with exuberance that USA-France would be a “s—tshow circus” between the two favorites, the magazine Eight by Eight released a video, taken in January, in which writer David Hirshey asked Rapinoe if she was excited about the prospect of going to the White House after the World Cup.

“I’m not going to the f—king White House,” said Rapinoe, who has been a regular critic of the Trump Administration’s policies and pronouncements on race, gender, sexual orientation and immigration, among other things. None of this was news. But the presence of a video and Rapinoe’s performative flourishes—her furrowed brow, her are-you-kidding-me “psssshhh” before responding, her targeted F-bomb—made it a thing, and it went viral. As of Thursday afternoon, it had been viewed 10.8 million times around the world.

On Wednesday, President Trump called out Rapinoe on Twitter and invited the U.S. team to the White House, win or lose in France. And on Thursday, Rapinoe appeared at the press conference before Friday’s big game and issued an opening statement:

“I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go the White House, with the exception of the expletive,” she said. “My mom will be very upset about that … Considering how much time and effort and pride we take in the platform that we have and using for good and for leaving the game in a better place and hopefully the world in a better place, I don’t think that I would want to go [to the White House]. And I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way, doesn’t fight for the same things that we fight for. I’ll just leave it at that.”

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Three other popular U.S. teammates—Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger and Becky Sauerbrunn—have said publicly they would not visit the White House under the current administration.

When asked if, now that she has an even bigger audience paying attention globally and domestically, she wanted to reiterate what she is protesting about, Rapinoe said: “I would prefer to just keep it on the game for this and then after the tournament … I have talked about it a lot and said a lot about it, so if people want to go and read about it they can. But I’d prefer to keep it on the game for now.”

In 2016, Rapinoe was the first white athlete to take a knee during the national anthem as an ally in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police treatment of African-Americans. When U.S. Soccer passed a rule requiring that players stand for the national anthem, Rapinoe began standing, though she told Henry Bushnell of Yahoo Sports that her protest continues by not singing the anthem or putting her hand over her heart.

The expected two-sided response has resulted this week, especially once Rapinoe became the target of presidential tweets. But if Rapinoe has been ground down by the past 48 hours, she did a great job of hiding it on Thursday. When asked her she still had the same exuberance for the USA-France game as she did on Monday night, she said:

“Oh, definitely. I think it’s only built, I think … I think it’s sold out already, and on the second-hand market the tickets are wild[-ly priced]. And just getting closer to the game as well, starting to break [France] down, I’m sure they’re feeling the same thing looking at this match. What it means, not only for the tournament, it’s a huge game and a chance to get to the medal rounds, but also our chance to play the host nation in a World Cup. For me, these are why you play all these friendlies a thousand times and are on your own for hours and hours and grind through the rest of it so you can get to these moments.”

Her coach, Jill Ellis, later said: “We all support Megan. She knows that. We know we have each other’s backs in there.”

Rapinoe is one of the few athletes who seems to keep growing into an occasion even as the pressure and everything around that moment multiply exponentially. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Spain victory, as other teammates declined to go into detail about the France game—some of them reasonably said they wanted to live in the moment of the Spain game—it was Rapinoe who got a giant smile and asked for a “s—tshow circus.”

We certainly have that now. And you know what? She’s still smiling.