(CNN) — It was an enthralling semifinal that had it all — a contentious offside decision, a penalty, a red card, wonderful saves and three ruthlessly taken goals — but it was a player who did not feature in the US’ 2-1 win over England in Lyon who was the focus of much attention.
The US has progressed to its third consecutive World Cup final on Tuesday and is one match away from defending its title, which would make Jill Ellis the first coach to win the Women’s World Cup twice.
But Megan Rapinoe, the US Women’s National Soccer team social campaigner who now transcends her sport after agitating the US President last week, was named on the substitutes’ bench. The opening two questions Ellis faced in her news conference centered on her star forward, which goes to illustrate the impact the 33-year-old has had, not just in France but around the world.
She was the match winner in both the last-16 and the quarterfinal, and by saying she would not go to the White House should the US win the competition, she has become a hero to some and a villain to others.
“Megan has a slight strain to her hamstring so wasn’t available,” Ellis explained in answering the question on many people’s lips.
“I feel we have a deep bench and called upon another player.”
It is hoped that Rapinoe will be fit for Sunday’s final, which will be against either the Netherlands or Sweden — who will play each other Wednesday in Lyon — but even if the 2015 World Cup winner does not make the starting lineup, the US has proved that it has a wealth of talent like no other team in this competition.
Alex Morgan sips the tea
The team also caused quite the stir with its celebrations as Alex Morgan became the latest to milk a goal.
The USWNT’s players received plenty of flack for exuberantly celebrating during their 13-0 thrashing of Thailand, and Morgan’s tea-drinking mime has further divided opinion.
On the occasion of her 30th birthday, Morgan was seemingly quick to reference the famous British tradition — raising her fingers to her mouth — after she scored the winner in the USWNT’s 2-1 victory..
Approximately 100 million cups of tea are drunk by the British each day– almost 36 billion per year — according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association.
However, Morgan said after the game that the celebration was a response to the criticism her team has received during the tournament. Prior to Tuesday’s clash, England coach Phil Neville had questioned the “etiquette”of the American team after officials visited his team’s hotel.
“I wanted to keep it interesting,” she told reporters. “I know Megan Rapinoe has the best celebration. I had to try and step up this game. I feel like this team has had so much thrown at them and us. I feel like we didn’t take an easy route through this tournament and ‘that’s the tea.'”
The celebration was lapped up by some, notably Hillary Clinton: “Congrats to the #USWNT for earning that tea,” the 2016 Presidential candidate tweeted.
It further emboldened Morgan’s status as a national treasure back home in the US. The forward has now bagged six goals this tournament and remains in pole position to win the golden boot alongside England’s Ellen White, who trails Morgan on assists.
Morgan’s celebration proved not to be everyone’s cup of tea.
“You can celebrate however you want, but that for me is a bit distasteful,” said English footballer Lianne Sanderson, working as a pundit on beIN Sports. “I’m a big believer in the Americans and how they celebrate but for me this was a little bit disrespectful.
What’s not in doubt is that Morgan’s toast certainly struck a nerve. And you can bet there were plenty of kettles being boiled in the UK with 11.7 million tuning in to the semifinal clash, according to the BBC — the highest TV audience of 2019.
As the World Cup reaches boiling point, there’s still plenty more drama brewing.