USA show depth as they prosper even without Megan Rapinoe
Was Jill Ellis, the USA manager, really leaving out Megan Rapinoe – arguably the star of the World Cup – in the semi-final against England?
As Rapinoe stood on the sidelines before the game, with her hands on her hips and her shin pads discarded, conspiracy theories abounded.
A US Soccer spokesman would only confirm the player’s absence from the starting 11 wasn’t a disciplinary matter. Questions about Rapinoe’s fitness would have to be directed to Ellis. Some American journalists reported she was injured, others said she was fine. She had been seen with therapeutic tape on her right hamstring in practice a day earlier, but she was on the bench as a substitute, meaning she was eligible to play. Some speculated that Rapinoe, who turns 34 later this week, was in need of rest. Others wondered whether Ellis was saving her for the final.
But another possibility emerged. Maybe Rapinoe, a left-winger, wasn’t a good match-up against England right-back Lucy Bronze, who England manager Phil Neville has insisted is the best player in the world. Bronze’s brother, Jorge, tweeted: “Scared of Lucy, innit?” Maybe Bronze could shut down Rapinoe the way Marta Corredera did when the US played Spain in the last-16, something which Rapinoe later admitted.
Or maybe Christen Press, who is faster than the crafty Rapinoe, could exploit the space Bronze would surely leave behind as she launched attacks down the right. Within 10 minutes on Tuesday night, that seemed to be about as good as explanation as any. As Kelley O’Hara raced up the right flank and crossed, Bronze was caught ball watching a step off Press. All Press had to do was direct the ball on target and, just like that, the Americans were ahead, 1-0.
The Americans have never lost when they have scored first in a World Cup game. And in this tournament early goals have been crucial in shifting the momentum in USA’s favor. All their opening goals have come within the first 12 minutes of games, something that has forced opponents to open up and chase the game. This time they eventually won, 2-1.
It looked like a magic touch from Ellis. The manager has had her share of critics, despite winning he World Cup four years ago, but the Rapinoe-Press swap was the latest in a long string of winning moves, regardless of what prompted it.
It was four years ago that, en route to winning the World Cup, Ellis pulled off the biggest masterstroke of her time as US manager, putting World Cup first-timer Morgan Brian in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role so Carli Lloyd could take over in attack. It worked – Lloyd scored a hat-trick in the final – but critics said it was prompted by a suspension to usual starter Lauren Holiday rather than Ellis’s own tactical genius.
In this World Cup, she has made similarly bold moves that have worked out for her. Ellis was criticized heavily for not starting Lindsey Horan, the MVP of the US domestic league last year, but Samantha Mewis has played well in her place. Lloyd has not played much in midfield as she’s been an out-and-out striker for the past couple years, but Ellis has dropped her into central midfield to close out games, with success.
Even Ellis’s decision in 2016 to anoint Alyssa Naeher the starting goalkeeper after Hope Solo was kicked off the team had come under scrutiny in this World Cup – until she saved an England penalty on Tuesday. In a wild match against a strong English side, Ellis could hardly put a foot wrong.
The fact that Ellis’s decision to leave out Rapinoe was even considered a possible tactical move is a testament to the depth of this US squad. Defender Ali Krieger has been lambasted in the press outside the States for suggesting the US have the two best teams in the world: their starters and their substitutes. But she was expressing a supreme confidence in the USA bench, a confidence that clearly wasn’t misplaced.
“They didn’t tell you guys? Just a minor hamstring thing. Not even a strain,” Rapinoe said after the game. “But not really able to go today. Just felt like it wasn’t going to hold up. We’ve been talking about this depth that we’ve had for months and months, and it was on display today.”
In the end, the reason for Press’s start may not matter at all. What matters is that sitting Rapinoe and starting the next-best player wasn’t a downgrade for the Americans. The teams that win World Cups tend to have the most depth. With that in mind, it’s hard to bet against the Americans and whatever Ellis has up her sleeve in the final – Rapinoe or no Rapinoe.