PARIS — This was a spectacle of women’s soccer, with a capacity crowd in a famous stadium roaring as a reigning champion and an overdue contender collided in one of the most anticipated Women’s World Cup matches in history.
It lived up to its billing and more. And when 90 exhausting minutes expired Friday, the United States remained in contention for a fourth championship by edging France, 2-1, in a riveting quarterfinal before 45,595 at Parc des Princes.
“That is the most intense match I have ever been a part of,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.
At the center of it was Megan Rapinoe, whose exploits on the field are often overshadowed by outspoken views on politics, race and gender equality, most recently with President Trump tweeting about her.
For the second consecutive match, Rapinoe scored two goals as the top-ranked Americans advanced to Tuesday’s semifinal against England in Lyon.
“C’est magnifique!” she said. “It’s everything you want.”
Rapinoe scored on a free kick in the fifth minute and on a shot from short distance in the 65th, triggering celebrations among an estimated 10,000 U.S. supporters. Wendie Renard answered for France in the 81st, but the Americans escaped several late threats and a possible handball call to reach the World Cup semifinals for the eighth time in as many tries.
“It’s almost like [a match of this magnitude] feeds her,” Ellis said. “She loves and lives for those moments. She is a big-time player, and the bigger the stage, the more she is going to respond.”
Rapinoe’s contributions punctuated a glorious night for women’s soccer, which is trying to make gains in a male-dominated sport. The United States and France were the two favorites in the tournament, but the draw had placed them in the same bracket for a likely meeting in the quarterfinals.
“I hope this will help this women’s game go further and move into that next level,” said French coach Corinne Diacre, whose fourth-ranked team has lost in the quarterfinals in each of the past five major world tournaments.
Hours before kickoff, supporters of both teams gathered in the brasseries and cafes around Porte de Saint-Cloud, site of the closest Metro station to the stadium. French and U.S. flags hung from awnings, and fans decked in jerseys raised a toast to the much-anticipated match.
As kickoff neared, streets leading to the venue filled with fans singing and marching with flags and traditional scarves. Among the chants: “Equal pay!” — a reference to the U.S. players’ efforts for gender equality within the U.S. Soccer Federation.
This time of year, Paris is always packed with Americans. With the U.S. soccer team in town, the numbers have swelled.
Expected guests included French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and famed coach Jose Mourinho.
The Americans were sharp from the start, and in the fifth minute, they went ahead.
The sequence began with a throw-in — Rapinoe’s toss down the line hit Alex Morgan in stride and with a step on Griedge Mbock Bathy. The French defender prevented Morgan from breaking away and, in doing so, committed a foul and received a yellow card.
The foul occurred a few strides beyond the left side of the penalty area, a prime spot for Rapinoe to swing in the ball and create chaos.
As her teammates surged toward the target, Rapinoe drove the ball to the near side. Bodies blocked goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi’s line of vision.
Julie Ertz made a play for the ball, distracting Bouhaddi, who had slid to her right to cover the corner. Ertz did not touch it, however. The ball then skipped between Amandine Henry’s legs, and by the time the ball approached Bouhaddi, it was too late for her to react.
Rapinoe celebrated by posing for the crowd, arms outstretched, before receiving her joyous teammates.
The goal continued a trend of early strikes: In the previous tournament matches, the United States scored in the 12th, 11th, third and seventh minutes.
For most of the half, though, France dictated terms. Conceding possession, the United States absorbed regular pressure, covering for one another, blocking shots and executing offside traps to extinguish serious chances against goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
The aerial battle had worried the Americans; France employed the tallest player in the tournament, the 6-foot-2 Renard.
Renard ended up scoring, but Ellis said, “On all the other set pieces, we were fantastic.”
The Americans began the second half with a flurry of opportunities. Bouhaddi was forced to make quality saves with her left hand (on Sam Mewis) and left foot (on Tobin Heath), then survive a scramble in the six-yard box off Rapinoe’s corner kick.
To relieve pressure, the Americans needed to increase possession and take the French out of their rhythm. They couldn’t string together passes and, in the face of French pressing, struggled to escape their own end.
In the 65th minute, however, Rapinoe extended the lead.
The buildup began on the right side, with Morgan leading Heath for a threatening run. Mewis made a central run, but Heath’s cross was behind her.
Just as well, perhaps, because a defender was with Mewis. No one, however, marked Rapinoe, who calmly pumped an eight-yard shot past the helpless Bouhaddi for her fifth goal of the tournament.
She also scored twice in the 2-1 victory over Spain in the round of 16.
Naeher initially kept the margin intact with a pair of quality saves, answering critics who doubted her capacity in her first major tournament as the starter.
After Heath’s goal was disallowed by an offside call, the French pulled closer. Renard broke free on Gaetane Thiney’s free kick and powered a six-yard header into the top of the net.
The French made claim for a penalty kick moments later when Amel Majri lifted a pass off Kelley O’Hara’s arm. Referee Kateryna Monzul allowed play to continue, and the video assistant referee declined to intervene.
“It’s not like I made my body big or anything,” O’Hara said. “You never know because it’s a little sketchy sometimes, but thankfully they called it the right way.”
Said French coach Diacre: “We have had VAR go our way in the past; clearly tonight it didn’t. We shouldn’t get too hung up on it.”
The Americans repelled additional pressure, and with substitutes Carli Lloyd and Christen Press holding the ball in the attacking end, they killed the clock — and crushed France’s dreams.
When the match ended, U.S. celebrations in the stands poured into the streets.
“Our fans were amazing,” Rapinoe said. “They screamed their little hearts out.”