U.S. women better with Megan Rapinoe on the field

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Share a field with Megan Rapinoe long enough, and it will happen. You'll be minding your own business, playing your normal game, and there, at your feet, where a moment earlier you would have sworn there was nothing, is the ball.

Opponents experience a similar phenomenon -- except the ball materializes in the back of their net instead of at their feet.

"Sometimes, it just hits us in the foot," United States defender Meghan Klingenberg said Monday night of passes from the player with whom she often shares the left side of the field. "It's there, and we're like, 'Oh, great pass!' "

Before Monday's game between the United States and Australia, there were concerns in some quarters about the air quality in Winnipeg. Forest fires in neighboring Saskatchewan left the sky hazy all day. The smoke did not, as it turned out, affect the players, but it appeared for a time that the Americans might need smoke and mirrors to escape their opening game with a win. With an early lead erased and the heavily partisan crowd of 31,148 silent enough to let a chant of "Aussie, Aussie Aussie, Oi, Oi Oi" carry around the stadium from a pocket of Australian fans in the corner, the United States was headed for a 1-1 draw and had goalkeeper Hope Solo to thank for a score that favorable.

Then a Solo goal kick arced out of the sky toward Rapinoe near midfield. Suddenly, Sydney Leroux was racing down the left touch line with the ball at her feet to set up a textbook finish from Christen Press and reclaim a U.S. lead that soon became a 3-1 win.

Rapinoe, who opened the scoring with a fortunate, deflected strike from distance in the first half, added a second goal late to become the first American since Abby Wambach in 2007 to score two goals in a World Cup game. She also helped set up the Leroux-Press winner.

On a potentially forgettable day, Rapinoe was in the middle of just enough unforgettable plays.

"At the end of the day, you have to give America credit," Australian coach Alen Stajcic said. "They had a couple of bits of class that turned the tide of the game halfway through the second half."

But it was the goal Rapinoe didn't score, on which she didn't even officially record an assist, that showed how different this team is with her at full-throttle.

It wasn't the kind of pass that makes highlight reels. Editors short on time might cut it out completely and focus instead, quite legitimately, on the powerful run from Leroux and calm finish from Press in her World Cup debut. But it was artistry nonetheless, subtle and perfect.

In that moment, as Solo's kick approached in the 61st minute, Rapinoe's mind and body came together in a partnership like few others. The mind processed what was needed, and the body obliged. She settled the ball out of the air and, in almost the same motion, flicked it to Leroux in a manner that allowed Leroux to hit full stride in a matter of steps.

"That's kind of her, I would say, go-to, sort of natural run," Rapinoe said. "I think, when I get the ball coming on the inside, defenses tend to shift with me. So I try, if they'll let me go all the way to goal, I'll do that. But Syd really opens up, and if they don't step enough with her, then she's wide open on that run. She's so quick, she can turn the corner quickly. If somebody played me that ball, I'd be stuck out there somewhere."

The moment required an exceptional play from Leroux, who played all night with commendable ferocity, and both the run into position and finish from Press.

But that's what the United States should produce: sequences that depend on the skills of multiple world-class players because the field and bench are littered with them.

That didn't happen in the disjointed first half. But it did in the second half.

"I love playing with Megan," Leroux said. "We know each other's tendencies, and sometimes, when we don't get it right, we have that look, and we're like, 'OK, we get it.' Obviously, she played me through on the ball that I assisted for the second goal. We talked about that."

Rapinoe's absence due to injury wasn't the only reason the United States went without a goal in a 0-0 friendly against South Korea before the team's departure for Canada, but it sure deserves a place high on the list. This team will be better if Alex Morgan, who made a much anticipated cameo late in the game, can make those regular minutes. But it is better right now with Rapinoe.

She can at times drive a coach and even teammates to distraction with her willingness to try anything -- she joked Monday that while NWSL teammate Kim Little too often waits for the perfect shot, she too often settles for any shot -- but she remains the part of this attack who is anything but rote.

"What's really cool about Pinoe is that she's able to speed the game up or slow the game down as she feels is needed," Klingenberg said. "It's not just about going 100 percent or just being really slow on the ball. She senses what the game needs, and then she's able to make the game work at her speed. That's a really, really cool, unique skill that not many players have.

"When she's able to do that, then we're able to create. We're able to get our outside backs flying around her, able to get runs from the forwards, able to get support to help her out."

This was not a performance worthy of a World Cup championship, the grail American teams have sought since one sunny afternoon in the Rose Bowl 16 years ago. If that's a critical assessment of a 3-1 win, it is one shared by Rapinoe, who used the word "shaky," and coach Jill Ellis, who described the team as "nervous" in the first half.

All the United States can claim is three points and sole possession of first place in a group that showed itself to be as deep as advertised. It's a group for which the potential difference between first place -- easier travel and a game against a third-place finisher -- and second place -- short rest, long travel and a potential Round of 16 game against Brazil -- is enormous.

The Americans can thank Rapinoe for their being three points closer to the best scenario.

"Megan thrives in these big games, big moments," Ellis said. "She's got ice running through her veins but a lot of passion inside of her. She's a player. She's a game-changer, and that's what makes her special. I think sometimes, when you have teams that are neutralizing each other, you look for those special players to step up.

"I think we've got quite a few of them, but certainly, tonight she did and had a tremendous impact on the game."

It wasn't all smoke and mirrors -- just a magician putting on a show.