Benefield: Megan Rapinoe's epic performance a convincing statement

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It seems only right that it was veteran midfielder Megan Rapinoe, standing in the corner of Parc des Princes stadium with the game not even five minutes old, arms outstretched and with an almost comical look of serenity on her face.

Having just scored one of the biggest goals of her storied career, her body language seemed to say, “Let’s hear it.” Let’s hear the cheers, the boos, the whistles, the roars. Bring it. Rapinoe’s expression said: “I can weather the storm and I can still throw daggers on the field. It’s what I do.”

Rapinoe, as everyone in the western world surely knows, drew headlines this week when comments she made back in January about not wanting to visit Donald Trump’s White House should the U.S. win the World Cup were released. As she does, she addressed the issue in front of the microphone at a press conference Thursday and then addressed it on the field Friday.

The outspoken, lavender-coiffed midfielder netted goals in the fifth and 65th minutes to lead the United States to a 2-1 win and a date with England in the semifinals Tuesday.

It was a dazzling performance that was perhaps meant to quiet to her vociferous critics, including the president, and yet surely won’t. Rapinoe has that kind of personality. She questions, she talks, she presses.

But first, and foremost, she plays.

Rapinoe’s heroics came in the most anticipated game of the tournament. But for soccer watchers, some of this has to feel a little familiar — watching the Redding-reared midfielder lift her team out of a tight, quarterfinal bind.

You might remember. It was 2011 and the U.S. was moments away from being ousted by the feisty Brazilians in the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup in Germany. That is, until in the closing seconds of extra time a streaking, full-stride Rapinoe sent a cross from very nearly half-field onto the noggin of the most lethal header in the history of the game: Abby Wambach.

It was the most exciting soccer game I have ever watched. And Rapinoe put her stamp all over it.

And then the U.S. lost. Not that game, they beat Brazil in penalties to advance to the semifinal where they dispatched France. But in the finals — the place American soccer fans, perhaps spoiled by the extraordinary success of the women’s national team, always expect our squad to be — the U.S. lost to Japan. For a team ranked number one in the world, second place seemed like a dismal failure.

So Rapinoe’s heroics, Wambach’s lethal noggin — for naught, really.

The same holds true today. The United States is the top-ranked team on the planet, they have an embarrassment of riches on their roster and they just dispatched a super-talented squad from the host country to earn a spot in the semifinal game thanks, yet again, to Rapinoe’s big play in big moments.

But just like in 2011, they aren’t there yet. The win over France was a huge step not only because Les Bleues is a loaded team graced with the unquantifiable benefit of playing on home soil, but because France presented the U.S. squad with challenges they had not yet seen in this tournament.

They have weapons: Eugenie Le Sommer on the left, Valerie Gauvin at striker, Gaetene Thiney at center mid, and captain Amandine Henry. But the player that evoked the most anxiety in me on behalf of the U.S. was one Kadidiatou Diani on the right flank.

In France’s lead-up to the quarterfinals, Diani didn’t score but she did everything else offensively for them. She created all kinds of chances and chances that led to goals with her speed up the outside. Opponents’ obvious attempts to drag her to the ground were met with almost comical shakeoffs as Diani simply flicked them off like so much lint and went on her merry way.

So when the U.S. lined up against France with Crystal Dunn, a natural striker whom U.S. coach Jill Ellis has been playing in the back, I held my breath. This is where France could and should attack.

And they did. And Diani shook off Dunn. But as the game wore on, Dunn dug in. She seemed to gain confidence with every moment that passed. Diani, the biggest threat in France’s lineup, didn’t score and she didn’t get an assist. France’s only goal came in the 81st minute off the head of Wendie Renard.

But it was Rapinoe, the player who has been in the news for reasons veering away from soccer of late, who stood in the sport’s largest spotlight and didn’t wither, but shone.

She scored on a free kick just outside the box before five minutes had passed. Her low, line drive somehow found its way through a sea of both French and American legs and into the back of the net. And with that, the U.S. were up 1-0 and Rapinoe trotted a few steps to her left, opened her arms wide and grinned as if to say “How do you like them apples?”

She made it 2-0 in the 65th minute after a nifty combination from Alex Morgan to Tobin Heath streaking down the right side. Heath had three options: Shoot, pass to a well-marked Samantha Mewis on the near post or cut back a tougher pass to the trailing Rapinoe. Heath went with the third option, rewarding Rapinoe for her sprint into the action, and Rapinoe one-touched it for goal No. 2 of the game and No. 5 for the tournament.

On multiple replays, Heath’s choice to feed Rapinoe seems obvious. She made that finish look easier than it was. She seems made for big moments and made that finish look easier than it was. She likes attention. She dyed her hair lavender and she has a million-watt smile. And at 33, she clearly can still play.

And this: She’s worthy. Her play talks plenty but her world view is on pretty high volume, too. Her big moments on the field have earned her a bully pulpit and, like on the field, she does not wither in the spotlight.

This week she didn’t shy away from her comments that she would not, in any circumstance, visit Trump’s White House. Her only apology went to her mother, Denise, whom Rapinoe said would be chagrined that she used an expletive in expressing her feelings.

Her teammates backed her. Her coach backed her. Her play backed up all of them.

This is not new for Rapinoe. She has spoken her mind thoughtfully for years.

She has stood (or knelt) in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protests for greater equality and justice in this country. She speaks out often and eloquently about LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and human rights. She and partner (and basketball legend) Sue Bird were the first openly gay couple to appear in the ESPN Body Issue. She is at the forefront of the player-driven legal fight against U.S. Soccer alleging gender discrimination.

And you can be certain that if this team doesn’t keep winning, the spotlight, microphone and/or bully pulpit will be far dimmer, quieter and lonelier for players like Rapinoe who are using the game to illuminate issues bigger than sport.

When she keeps scoring goals or providing soaring assists on soccer’s grandest stages, she keeps being handed the microphone. She gets to say her piece and ask questions out loud. She gets to ignite thoughtful debate.

Like she did in front of more than 45,000 fans at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on Friday, Rapinoe proves again and again that she’s still a joy to watch. But she might be even better to listen to.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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