Megan Rapinoe says USWNT is feeling early World Cup pressure, but ‘hell yeah’ they’re used to it


United States’ Megan Rapinoe follows play during the second half of the FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer match between the United States and Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The 2023 World Cup was barely a week old when the U.S. women’s national team began to feel it. The Americans felt it during Thursday’s 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, and afterward. They are now facing “a must-perform,” as Megan Rapinoe said, in Tuesday’s group finale against Portugal (3 a.m. ET, Fox) from which they need a result to advance; a loss would almost certainly eliminate them.

So “of course,” Rapinoe said Sunday, “there’s a little bit of anxiousness.”

But of course, she also explained throughout a free-wheeling 25-minute news conference replete with laughs and F-bombs, the USWNT is used to this.

“I think being on the U.S. women’s national team, it kinda always feels like this,” Rapinoe said.

“We go into these moments like, ‘Hell yeah,’” she said. “This is exactly where we wanna be.”

They are part of a program that has made pressure inescapable and inevitable. They have made it so both by winning and by talking. In 2019, Rapinoe admitted, with an equal-pay lawsuit on the docket and with bold comments spilling out of their mouths every other day, they felt: “Well, we have to win.” They never quite explicated it. They didn’t even really speak about it as a team. But they understood, Rapinoe said: “This is kind of like a must-win World Cup for us.”

And they won it, because they’re accustomed to pressure. They know how to attack and embrace it. In 2019, they even fed off it.

“I think it did give us confidence,” Rapinoe said. “I think it pressured us, but I think we also knew that we could handle it, it was almost like a mandatory upping of our level, to be able to match everything that we were saying off the field. In so many ways, we were betting on ourselves, and kind of laying the bet out early. And it was on us to prove it.

“Without the winning, you don’t get all these microphones. Without the winning, you don’t get the platform, you don’t get the media, you don’t get the eyes, you don’t get the fans, you don’t get the ability to say what you want all the time.”

Four years later, their vibe is different. They have been less brash, less outspoken. So, Rapinoe was asked: Do they still feel all of that? Is this World Cup a must-win?

“We feel like we have to win everything all the time,” she said. “That’s the expectation for ourselves. That’s the expectation playing for the U.S. women’s national team.”

The pressure, this time around, comes one round early, and comes from two uninspiring performances. They “weren’t in sync,” against the Netherlands, midfielder Andi Sullivan admitted Saturday. They’re “unsatisfied with the way that we’ve played,” Rapinoe said. With 4 points, and with Portugal on 3, they need a draw to secure a place in the Round of 16. They might need a multi-goal win to top the group and avoid a matchup with Sweden.

Which is why they feel anxious. But they’ve created an environment where channeling it into positive energy is the norm. “I think that is something that always gets passed down through the generations of this team,” Rapinoe said. It gets passed down via attention to detail in training, via off-field habits, via preparation, all of which allows them to play free in the most pressure-packed moments of their lives.

Those moments have perhaps arrived earlier than expected in 2023, but “I think everybody’s looking at this like, ‘Let’s go,’” Rapinoe said.

If they lose Tuesday, they would go down as by far the worst USWNT ever. But even that has been the case entering all but a handful of the World Cup games they’ve ever played. They have never finished worse than third at this tournament. Even in 2011, trailing Brazil in the waning moments of a quarterfinal, Rapinoe remembers thinking: “F***, we’re gonna be the worst team ever in the history of the U.S. women’s national team. This is gonna be terrible.”

She responded by hitting a majestic cross to Abby Wambach, who tied the game with a header. The USWNT won on penalties, then advanced to the final. It hadn’t trailed in a knockout-round game until the match versus the Netherlands.

Soon after recalling that moment, Rapinoe was asked: If this 2023 team doesn’t win it all, how should it be judged?

She responded with five words: “I’ve never thought about that.”

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