Heather O'Reilly, Megan Rapinoe share spotlight in U.S. rout
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Thursday night's game between the United States and Thailand was a great many things. Heck, it was a lot of things before the actual game was five minutes old.
The first mile on the road to France and the 2019 World Cup?
Not so much. On a night when the United States beat Thailand 9-0, when Carli Lloyd tallied three goals and four assists, the game was about two people. And Lloyd wasn't one of them.
One was celebrated as she stood alone in a national team uniform for the final time.
One was watched as she knelt on the ground, surrounded but solitary, before the game.
Thursday was about Heather O'Reilly becoming part of the team's past after her final game and Megan Rapinoe stoking controversy in the present by kneeling during "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the first time while wearing a national team uniform.
Neither has much to do with what happens across the Atlantic Ocean in three years.
"The most important thing for me is Heather O'Reilly having a fitting send-off game," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "That was the most important thing, in terms of with the team internally, externally, what we tried to do and how we honored her. That was the priority."
On a different night, really any other night, O'Reilly would have had the spotlight to herself. This was the antithesis of that laborious game in New Orleans last December when the United States tried and tried to send off Abby Wambach with a goal and instead lost to China.
In the minutes before the game, O'Reilly blasted the ball into the top of the goal during a shooting drill. Starting and wearing the captain's armband in the last of her 231 appearances for the national team, O'Reilly appeared more than ready to go out as more than a ceremonial figure.
Less than 60 seconds into the game, she got to the end line and delivered a cross -- of course she did -- that Lloyd finished for the opening goal. For someone with more assists than all but five women in the team's history, it was a fitting way to exit. Except O'Reilly wasn't done. In the fifth minute, Christen Press having already extended the lead to two goals in the intervening seconds, Lloyd returned the favor and set up O'Reilly for her first international goal in nearly a year. She nearly poached another goal, chasing a Tobin Heath goal into the net, relentless effort that in its own way summed up the player.
Even a final act that Ellis made sound like something of an audible proved perfect. When the United States made its sixth and final substitution in the second half and O'Reilly stayed on the field, it seemed she wouldn't get the typical farewell curtain call. But with only a handful of minutes remaining, Ellis got approval from the referees to make a unique move.
Up went the fourth official's electronic board with O'Reilly's No. 9 as the departing player. But where the number of her replacement would have been, there was nothing. O'Reilly walked off alone, and the United States played the final minutes with 10 players on the field.
"I thought it was just fitting that she get a standing ovation, a moment to herself in this game," Ellis said. "I just felt she needed that singular moment to be acknowledged and recognized by everyone."
Left unsaid was that it was a night when singular moments were difficult to come by. O'Reilly was honored on the field before the game in a ceremony that included Mia Hamm, a fellow North Carolina Tar Heel and former national teammate when O'Reilly first appeared as a high schooler. But that felt like prelude to the national anthem that followed. After saying Wednesday that she wasn't sure if she would stand or kneel, Rapinoe made her choice.
If you hadn't been looking, you might not even have noticed her flanked by the other bench players who remained standing. But, of course, everyone was looking. The day after a police shooting in Columbus in which a 13-year-old African-American boy was killed after reportedly pulling what proved to be a realistic looking BB gun from his waistband, Rapinoe knelt.
"I never felt like it was wrong in the first place," Rapinoe said of her decision. "I never felt it was disrespectful. I felt very convicted in Chicago that night when I took that knee for the first time. And I think that I've been trying to figure out a way to make everybody happy. That's not possible. I truly believe in what I'm doing and the things that I'm saying and the need for this conversation to happen, especially in light of what happened last night in this city.
"I think, ultimately, I know I can sleep at night with the decision that I made."
What some people heard as a single voice shouting "Stand up Pinoe" was the only audible response, although it later sounded as if some boos greeted Rapinoe when she took the field in the second half.
Ellis made clear the day before the game her belief that national team duty conveys a responsibility to stand for the anthem. In a statement released during the game, U.S. Soccer expressed an almost identical stance. But Rapinoe said no one asked her to stand for the anthem and the statement made no mention of potential sanctions. Ellis, too, said she didn't consider not playing Rapinoe. But she also left room to suggest that isn't permanent.
"I think for me and who I am, I've given this a lot of thought and a lot of contemplation," Ellis said. "And I think tonight I was not going to get caught up in an emotional response in the moment. I'm pretty measured in everything I do, and certainly even to the game plan was measured in minutes and that was factored in, including Megan. I think that's just how I am.
"Now it's continued conversations and thoughts on my part and probably with the federation."
I never felt it was disrespectful. ... I think that I've been trying to figure out a way to make everybody happy. That's not possible. I truly believe in what I'm doing and the things that I'm saying and the need for this conversation to happen ...Megan Rapinoe on kneeling
It took until now to even mention that the United States played the game without Hope Solo in goal, a situation that will be so for at least the next six months. Then again, it took until the 34th minute for the crowd to get a chance to cheer starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris in her first appearance for the national team in more than a year, when a teammate played a ball back to her. But for a second-half sequence in which Thailand nearly scored a goal, replays suggesting Kelley O'Hara's goal-line clearance was either perfect timing or an advertisement for goal-line technology, the defensive half of the field was an afterthought for the Americans.
Of course, except for those that involved O'Reilly, the nine goals they scored at the other end were ultimately an afterthought, too. With apologies to Lloyd's haul, history will not long remember the final score of the game. It might well remember the rest of the night.
This is supposed to be the doldrums of women's international soccer for North American teams. The United States won't play another meaningful game until 2018. But when nine goals and Solo's absence don't even make the top of the page, these are interesting times.
So it was left to O'Reilly, who half-jokingly confirmed she was still sure about international retirement in the wake of such a strong performance, to offer her final words as a member of the national team not about the celebration but the latest controversy.
"She did talk to the team, that she was thinking about doing that," O'Reilly said of Rapinoe. "And we know, obviously, why she is doing that -- because she loves this country and she wants to see change and that's how she feels, in her heart, that she's demonstrating it."
We will eventually start down the road to France. It just didn't happen Thursday night.