USWNT star Megan Rapinoe makes loud statement to silence critics

LYON, France -- She stood alone, the only woman in history to start in three consecutive Women's World Cup finals. With the score tied 0-0 and her teammates standing united at her back -- as they have been throughout this tournament -- Megan Rapinoe finished the job.

In the 61st minute of what had become another physically and emotionally grueling test for the Americans, Rapinoe sent a penalty kick past Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal and opened the scoring for the U.S. against the reigning European champions. As her teammates sprinted to engulf her in celebration, the U.S. captain walked calmly to the corner and slowly lifted her arms wide above her head in the iconic pose that has become symbolic of Rapinoe's unflappable conviction and uncanny ability to score goals in big moments.

"I don't think we have anything more to say," Rapinoe said after the Americans' 2-0 victory that earned them a fourth Women's World Cup title. Before taking their victory lap around Stade de Lyon, and with confetti in their hair, the women changed into their new white jerseys with "CHAMPIONS" and "19" on the back and a fourth golden star emblazoned on the front.

"We are such a proud and strong and defiant group of women. We've done exactly what we've set out to do, what we wanted to do," Rapinoe said. "Getting to play at the highest level at the World Cup is ridiculous, but to be able to couple that with everything off the field, and to back up all of those words with performances and back up those performances with words, it's just incredible. I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us, as we live. It's an incredible feeling."

Before this tournament started, questions swirled around the U.S. team and whether it would have the resolve, or the midfield, to repeat as world champion.

No head coach had ever won consecutive World Cup championships. Would Jill Ellis be the first? No country had hoisted the Women's World Cup trophy four times. Would this U.S. squad, which saw its earliest exit in an international competition just two years ago to Sweden in the semifinals of the Rio Olympics, be able to hold off a swarm of surging European teams? Would goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who had no major international-tournament experience entering this World Cup, be a worthy replacement for two-time Golden Glove winner Hope Solo?

Day by day, game by game, week by week, the team answered those questions with "Yes!" after "Yes!" and win after win. Their first on-field test came against Sweden in the final match of group play, which the Americans won without conceding a goal. Against the host country, France, they continued their streak of scoring in the opening 12 minutes and knocked Les Bleues from the tournament. In the semifinals, against England, Naeher blocked a late-game penalty kick that would have leveled the game, and likely silenced any critics who were still hanging around.

The team's off-the-field challenges, however, began earlier.

The U.S. players came into this tournament on the heels of filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against their federation. Once in France, they didn't shy away from talking about it. After their opening win against Thailand, critics questioned their need to celebrate each of their 13 goals. They responded by continuing to score and continuing to celebrate.

When the president of the United States, after learning that Rapinoe said she and her teammates would not visit the White House if they were invited, tweeted that Rapinoe should "finish the job first," she responded by scoring the only two U.S. goals against Spain. She continued to do the same against France and showed up to every news conference and answered every question thrown her way.

"[Megan] had an incredible tournament," U.S. forward Alex Morgan said. "It is a testament to her self-confidence and self-belief and the true person she shows every day when she's with us. And she's just now showing the world."

Given how challenging the U.S has viewed its competition this tournament, it is perhaps most impressive that the Americans never trailed at this World Cup. When the Dutch managed to hold them scoreless into the second half on Sunday, the potential for a repeat of the 1999 World Cup final seemed possible; time had expired in regulation with the score tied 0-0, a game the U.S. would win on penalties.

But then, just over an hour into the game, Rapinoe scored, and the team seemed to relax. The field opened up, and the U.S. began to take chances. In the 69th minute, Sam Mewis sent a cross to the left foot of fellow midfielder Rose Lavelle, who threaded a shot from the top of the box between two defenders and past van Veenendaal, whose gutsy performance in the final earned her the Golden Glove award. It was the 24-year-old Lavelle's third goal in six games.

"She's been so dangerous for us," Rapinoe, 34, said of the young midfielder. "For her to get that reward tonight on the biggest stage you possibly can, I'm so proud of her. She's a superstar -- not even in the making. She's straight-up superstar at this point."

It seems fitting that on a team so praised for its depth, the two U.S. goals were scored by the team's oldest starter and its youngest. By a three-time World Cup finalist and voice of this team, and a player who made her first appearance for the USWNT only two years ago and is still finding her voice off the field.

"It doesn't seem real yet," Lavelle said. "The whole experience hasn't hit me. It's so surreal that I just won a World Cup with people I grew up idolizing."

The same can be said of many of the players on the opposite side of the field, as well. Sunday morning, a few hours before the biggest game in their team's history, the OranjeLeeuwinnen's official Instagram page dropped a hype video that opened with "The Star Spangled Banner" playing over a slideshow of the USWNT's greatest hits.

"You are truly an inspiration to many," a woman's voice reads, in English, over the video. "You proved us [sic] that dreams do come true."

The video fades to black, and a close-up shot of Dutch striker Lieke Martens appears on the screen. "Thank you for that," she says, before offering a challenge to the Americans. "See you tonight," she said. The video went viral, shared by American and Dutch fans alike.

After the match, a block of neon-orange fans remained in the stadium and continued to cheer their women, breaking up a sea of red, white and blue. Although their passion for the sport has just begun to blossom, they have been as visible and passionate as any at this tournament. When the U.S. fans started a chant of "Equal pay!" during the trophy celebration, the Dutch fans joined in, a united show of support for the women's game at large.

"I hope this is [a turning point]," Rapinoe said of the chants. "Everyone is asking what's next and what do we want to come from all of this, and it's to stop having the conversation about equal pay and being asked, 'Are we worth it?' It should be, 'What are we going to do about it? How do we continue to push this forward?'"

In this moment, in this movement, Rapinoe does not stand alone.