Confidence? Arrogance? Belief? Maybe USA knew they would need Rapinoe in the final
- Megan Rapinoe was not risked against England, a decision the United States may not have made had they truly feared going out.
"I just thought, 'What are they doing?'"
That was Phil Neville's response when asked about members of the United States' backroom team assessing England's hotel ahead of potentially moving into it for the Women's World Cup final.
He likely had similar thoughts – perhaps with more colourful language – when the USA team sheet came out for Tuesday's semi-final in Lyon and Megan Rapinoe's name was not in the starting line-up.
The player of the tournament so far, the woman whose four goals in the previous two matches had dragged USA to an eighth-straight World Cup semi-final and the name on everyone's lips – from US president Donald Trump to actor Zac Efron – not in Jill Ellis' XI?
Conspiracy theories circulated. Was it something to do with her tiff with Trump? A defensive move from Ellis to counter the threat of England's best player, right-back Lucy Bronze?
As it transpired, Rapinoe had a hamstring problem. It must have been serious enough to prevent her from even attempting to play in such a crucial game... or was it a bold move by Ellis not to risk her star player because she was so confident of reaching the final and needing her then?
14 - Since her debut at the Women’s World Cup in 2011, USA’s Megan Rapinoe has been involved in more goals at the tournament than any other player (14 – 8 goals, 6 assists). Benched. #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/yszV8P405e— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 2, 2019
Call it belief – as USA do – confidence, or just downright arrogance. The United States know they remain the dominant force in women's football and a 2-1 victory over England in Lyon only reinforced the point.
Rapinoe could have spent the evening in the Marriott, packing up for Neville, Bronze and the rest of the Lionesses as her USA team-mates proved too good for a team England stressed they no longer feared.
Maybe defender Ali Krieger was right with her assertion that USA had "the best team on the planet and also the second-best team" as it was Christen Press, Rapinoe's replacement, who got the ball rolling in the semi-final.
Press got on the end of Kelley O'Hara's back-post cross to nod in a 10th-minute opener, with Bronze, who had been looking forward to a much-anticipated duel with Rapinoe, having allowed her to escape into space.
It was just reward for a USA team that had threatened to blow England away inside the opening quarter of an hour, though a fine first-time finish from Ellen White, her sixth goal of the tournament, levelled matters nine minutes after Press' header.
It did not dent USA's confidence. Lindsey Horan, the other change to the starting line-up by Ellis, provided the cross and Alex Morgan headed past England's back-up goalkeeper Carly Telford, in for the injured Karen Bardsley, to restore the lead before the break.
Morgan celebrated scoring on her 30th birthday by pretending to drink a good old cup of English tea. She may as well have asked the English defence if they fancied leaving the kettle ready when they left the hotel, too.
England thought they had found a way back into the game, twice, in the second half. First, White was correctly denied an equaliser by VAR due to her being offside, and then captain Steph Houghton missed England's third penalty of the tournament when Alyssa Naeher guessed the right way.
In the most pressurised of situations, the Lionesses' leader was unable to deliver. The USA bench wildly celebrated, Rapinoe the only one to remain in her seat.
Injured? Sulking? Or just saving herself for the final?
"In terms of arrogance, I think that's got nothing to do with us," Ellis had said about checking on England's hotel. "That's planning, preparation."
The same could be said for not risking Rapinoe due to a belief you would need her for the final. Rapinoe believes she will play then, so maybe they knew what they were doing all along.