It is the second half of USA’s quarter-final against France at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ and the Americans are up against it, their opponents in the ascendancy having just scored an equaliser. Then, acting on the advice of her assistants, USA coach Pia Sundhage decides to make some changes, bringing on forward Alex Morgan ten minutes into the half and midfielder Megan Rapinoe shortly afterwards. The substitutions prove to be game changers.
Regaining control of the midfield, the Americans push forward and go on to win the match 3-1, booking a place in Sunday’s final against Japan.
“There are no first-teamers and substitutes in this team,” said Abby Wambach, who headed what turned out to be her side’s winner with 11 minutes remaining. “There are no differences. Look at Alex Morgan, who came off the bench and scored her first World Cup goal. Mark my words. That’s the first of many Alex is going to score in the World Cup.”
“Abby motivates me every day,” said an excited Morgan in response to her team-mate’s praise. “I think she’s an amazing person, and it’s an honour to play and learn with her. All I’m doing is trying to contribute to the good of the team, to have an impact whenever I come on. I’m working for the team, looking for my chance and I want to make the most of every minute I have on the pitch. And I’m so happy to have scored.”
As coach Sundhage herself said, her Plan B couldn’t have worked out better: “I made some mistakes today but my assistants are amazing and they told me how to move the midfield around. They deserve all the credit.”
Well, perhaps not all the credit. Some of that should also go to the Swedish-born coach’s second-half substitutes, among them Rapinoe, who helped turn the game on its head.
The blonde-haired midfielder is acquiring a reputation as a supersub. Having leapt off the bench to score USA’s second against Colombia in the group phase, she then made another priceless contribution when coming on in the quarter-final against Brazil, sending in the cross that allowed Wambach to head the Americans level in the last seconds of extra time.
A question of trust
“There are 21 players in this team,” continued Sundhage. “They’ve all got talent and they know what they have to do. Megan was starting not so long ago but [Lauren] Cheney began to play really well and I swapped them around just before the World Cup. Megan’s doing a fantastic job as a substitute, though. That shows you her character. She’s a great reader of the game but she works specifically on the job she has to do as a substitute.”
Wambach shared her coach’s views on Rapinoe: “Megan has a lot of quality and technique and a tremendous amount of confidence in herself. That’s her big asset. She didn’t get down about being made a substitute because she knew she had a lot to contribute in that role.”
With her short, platinum-blonde hair, Rapinoe cuts a striking presence, though she also has the game to back up her words: “I just try to be confident when I’m out there and be as useful and as dangerous as I can. And obviously I want to show I can get a starting place. Coming on as a sub is a different challenge. You need to make an immediate impact and there’s no time to get used to the pace of the game. I just try to use my head as much as my body.”
So should she win a prize for being the best sub? “Ha ha. Well, it’s gone pretty well for me in the last few games so maybe they can give me a supersub certificate or something,” she replied, a broad smile stretching across her face. “I’ll play for 90 or 20 minutes. I don’t care. I just need a minute to make the difference. I’ve always been a confident player and I want to keep on taking the chances the coach gives me.
“The team’s got this incredible energy now,” she continued. “Nobody can take what we’ve achieved away from us.” Asked what USA can go on and achieve in the final, she responds with a simple gesture, placing her hand over her heart, her eyes gleaming.
If she and her fellow subs can produce more of their head-turning cameos against Japan on Sunday, that unspoken wish might just come true.