Megan Rapinoe was standing over the ball, 12 yards out from the goal, in the second half of a scoreless Women’s World Cup final against the Netherlands on Sunday. The U.S. women’s national team had earned a penalty thanks to the tournament’s least controversial VAR review—pro tip: you’re not allowed to kick Alex Morgan in the arm—and there wasn’t another American (dead or alive) you’d rather have taking the shot.
Rapinoe had already buried both penalties she had taken this tournament, in the Round of 16 game against Spain. She had scored both goals in the U.S.’ win over host France in the quarterfinal. She’d also been the tournament’s star off the field, stating her opinions with eloquence and force on subjects ranging from FIFA’s treatment of the women’s game to the Trump administration’s actions.
It’s a credit to Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal that there was even a sliver of doubt that Rapinoe would score. Through luck, reflexes, and tremendous positioning, van Veenendaal had kept the U.S. off the scoreboard. The Dutch keeper was playing pinball wizard the entire game, reading every bounce, tracking the ball through every screen, and flicking something out at the last minute to swat away every U.S. attempt on goal. She seemed locked in, like she wanted this to be the clincher of what would come to be remembered as The Sari van Veenendaal Game.
But she leaned the wrong way. Rapinoe hit it to her other side, not great, but good enough. 1-0 U.S. And the moment became an encapsulation of Rapinoe’s tournament. She won the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as its best player, and she did it despite scoring just twice with the ball in play. (She scored on those three penalties and one slightly fortunate free kick.) In this World Cup, she brought to the table more than her creativity and willingness to attempt the audacious, which haven’t waned but have been harder to put into practice when her legs sometimes can’t keep up with her mind. The key was her mental toughness, her leadership, the ice in her veins. What Rapinoe has displayed all tournament was not so much arrogance as an acute and perfect self-confidence. She knows that she is a star whether she makes this penalty kick in a World Cup final or not, and so of course she makes it.
Besides, this U.S. team had audacity and creativity covered. Yes, Tobin Heath was there, freelancing on the right wing, refusing to shoot on the doorstep of the tournament-clinching goal because presumably she hadn’t nutmegged anyone yet. And the daring long passing of Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper meant the U.S. could threaten from any part of the field. But the creative heart of this team—the heir apparent to Rapinoe on the field—was 24-year-old Rose Lavelle.
It was Lavelle who finally made U.S. coach Jill Ellis’ plan for the Dutch come good. Before the penalty, watching the final was like watching the swordfight from The Princess Bride continue on left-handed indefinitely. Neither side was willing to put its best foot forward. The U.S. failed to overlap or overload the box lest it get caught on the counter, leaving wingers to settle for crosses aimed at only one or two targets. Ellis gambled that her players would win enough individual battles in a row for something to stick. With the Dutch formation finally starting to stretch in search of an equalizer, Lavelle won them all by herself. She danced through the Dutch midfield and took its back line out of the equation by firing an unstoppable shot into the net before she reached them.
It was only the capstone to Lavelle’s campaign as the breakout player of the tournament. She drew an early yellow card on Sunday that limited Dutch defensive midfielder Sherida Spitse for the rest of the game. She had nutmegged a defender and dummied the ball near the sideline to open space for Kelley O’Hara to assist Christen Press for the opener against England in the semifinal. Every game she came up with some new audacious display with which to embarrass her direct opponent and inspire the viewing audience to wonder if they just saw what they thought they saw. She won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player and had some people wondering how she had gotten robbed.
Lavelle had a tournament that was as effusive and ebullient as Rapinoe’s was undaunted. The U.S. needed both facets to win its fourth World Cup. Lavelle’s ability to dumbfound defenses will be crucial to the U.S. team’s play for the next four years and beyond. Rapinoe will be 37 when the next World Cup starts. That may seem too old come 2023, but this month, this tournament, is not the time to doubt her. Can you imagine, even four years from now, anyone else you’d rather have standing over the ball with the game on the line?
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