Megan Rapinoe said that, far from a distraction to overcome, criticism and controversy during the Women's World Cup played an important part in propelling the United States to the title.
In an interview with ESPN FC, Rapinoe said players rallied together after President Donald Trump tweeted during the tournament that the U.S. captain should win before talking about visiting the White House. Those tweets followed the release of a months-old video in which Rapinoe said she wouldn't accept an invitation to the White House if the U.S. were to win the World Cup.
"If anything, it united everyone around us and united the team around itself," Rapinoe told ESPN FC. "And it was emboldening in a way."
She added that she didn't spend much time following the reaction to the controversy in the moment. She also said that the U.S. already possessed ample motivation to win its fourth World Cup title. But coming the same week as a much-anticipated quarterfinal in Paris against host France, a co-favorite among oddsmakers to win the tournament, she contended that the episode brought players together as they began a stretch in which they played three top European opponents in the run-in to lifting the trophy.
"It was one of those things that kind of came at this funny moment," Rapinoe said. "I think it was more of a unifying thing than any sort of distraction."
Teammate Ali Krieger made a public show of support at the time with a tweet criticizing the president, but the game against France on June 28 was the first public appearance for most players since the president's tweets intensified the controversy two days earlier.
Playing a much more defensive style than at any other point in the tournament, the U.S. protected its early lead and withstood a barrage of French attacks in a 2-1 win. Rapinoe suggested it was a collective effort worthy of admiration from even Jose Mourinho -- the men's coach famous for winning major titles with a pragmatic, often defensive approach -- who she saw in the stands that day. It was not, in her estimation, the performance of a distracted team.
"We knew exactly what we wanted to do and what we were going to do to win," Rapinoe said. "We were sort of all on board in that moment, like, 'OK, this going to be more of a defensive game. We're going to counterattack.' ... And if you're going to beat us, you're going to have to break down a very organized, committed, disciplined team, which is really hard to do."