LYON, France — It was late Sunday night, moments after the U.S. women’s soccer team had clinched its second consecutive World Cup title, and coach Jill Ellis was trying to articulate how Megan Rapinoe, her star left wing, had taken the monthlong tournament and made it her personal performance stage.
“Megan was built for this,” Ellis said, shaking her head while sitting inside a news conference room at the Stade de Lyon, “built for these moments, built to be a spokeswoman for others.”
Rapinoe was meant to be sitting beside her coach, but she was running late after being randomly selected for a postgame doping test. In her absence, Ellis showered her with praise: about her eloquence, about her honesty, about how women’s soccer needed players like her.
“The bigger the spotlight, the more she shines,” Ellis said. “I think spotlights can burn people, but for Megan, it just highlights who she is.”
Two minutes later, Rapinoe burst out of a door, a gold medal dangling around her neck. The energy in the room shifted.
“Hey!” Rapinoe said, mugging for the audience. “I just killed doping, if anyone is concerned.”
Ellis and the assembled reporters laughed at what was the perfect entrance, in a way, for Rapinoe. The coach happily got up and left, letting her player handle the rest.
Rapinoe had already done it all for the American women on the field, scoring six goals en route to being named the top player at the tournament.
But she did much more than that: charming fans with her waggish personality and utter lack of a rhetorical filter; drawing the ire of the president of the United States on social media; antagonizing officials in FIFA and her own federation, both of whom she has deemed not sufficiently interested in helping the women’s game grow.
In this way, Rapinoe was inescapable at this World Cup. It was her tournament. By the final games of competition, her name was receiving the loudest cheers of any player during pregame introductions. On Sunday night, fans sporting lavender-dyed hairdos, in apparent tribute to Rapinoe, were everywhere.
“I’m made for this,” Rapinoe said about the tournament spotlight. “I love it.”
For all her plaudits, Rapinoe could not be called an all-encompassing force on the field over the past few weeks. But she was cool and clinical, ruthless even, when it counted most, with five goals in the knockout rounds.
Three of her six goals came from the penalty spot, and one came on a free kick that took an auspicious, bouncing path into the net. Of her two goals from open play, one represented the ninth tally in the Americans’ 13-0 demolition of Thailand in the opening game, and the other provided the difference in their 2-1 quarterfinal win over France.
She also helped orchestrate some of the team’s most memorable goal celebrations, including a routine in their second game, when all the players pantomimed a polite golf clap in response to criticisms that they had gone too far in the blowout against Thailand.
“She’s the best teammate someone could ask for,” said U.S. striker Alex Morgan. “She had an incredible tournament, just a testament to her self-confidence and self-belief. The true person she shows every single day with us, she showed the world.”
Rapinoe sat out the United States’ group stage game against Chile, as part of Ellis’ team rotation, and missed its knockout round game against England with a sore hamstring.
But there was not a single moment during the tournament when her presence was not felt — and not a single question or topic of conversation to which she failed to produce a fully formed, cleanly articulated and often humorous response. Rapinoe has always been outspoken; the World Cup was Rapinoe Extra Strength:
— On LGBT rights: “Go gays! You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. That’s science right there.”
— On the suggestion that the team’s celebrations were excessive: “Wah, wah, wah. We’re at the World Cup. I don’t think anyone truly believes we disrespect the game or our opponents. What do you want us to do? We work hard. We like to play hard.”
— On the idea that her decision not to sing the national anthem with her teammates was un-American: “I think that I’m particularly, uniquely and very deeply American. If we want to talk about the ideals that we stand for, the song and the anthem, and what we were founded on, I think I’m extremely American.”
Throughout the roller-coaster month, Rapinoe maintained the support of her teammates. When President Donald Trump singled her out for criticism on Twitter — in response to an interview in which she said, in coarse terms, that she was not interested in visiting the White House — defender Ali Krieger directed a tweet to the president in her teammate’s defense.
Christen Press, a highly capable player who might have played a starring role in this tournament were it not for the presence of Rapinoe ahead of her on the depth chart, described her as a “warrior” on and off the field, and called it a privilege to be her teammate.
“It’s been beautiful to see her fearlessness as we get to the highest level and the highest stages, that she doesn’t back away, she doesn’t shy, but the opposite: She gets even bigger,” Press said.
Rapinoe, 34, teared up last week when discussing how much Press had gone through this year with the death of her mother, and she became emotional as she talked about watching her younger teammates thriving at the tournament.
And after the American women won the trophy, Rapinoe was clearly moved by the moment she and her teammates were commanding.
“I feel this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live,” she said. “It’s just an incredible feeling. It’s something that’s very special.”