LYON, France — To start to grasp the depth of talent on the United States women’s soccer team, one only had to observe the utterly unperturbed manner in which its players handled the absence on Tuesday night of forward Megan Rapinoe, the player who had been responsible for all four of the Americans’ goals in their two previous knockout-stage wins.
Fans on social media and elsewhere experienced a short freakout when the lineup for the Americans’ World Cup semifinal against England was announced, but on the field, no one missed a beat. Hardly anyone seemed to miss Rapinoe at all.
Life, and the march toward a second straight World Cup title, simply went on.
[The United States beat England, 2-1, on Tuesday to return to the final of the Women’s World Cup.]
Eleven players make up a starting lineup, but the sheer number of world-class players on the United States roster has led the coaching staff to take an unusual approach in this tournament, one in which 15 players, out of the 23 on the roster, train and prepare between matches as if they were full-time starters.
“I have multiple starters in multiple positions,” United States coach Jill Ellis said after the players she did send out beat England, 2-1, Tuesday night. “When we talk to them and when we train, everybody gets the same information, everybody gets the same attention and focus and detail from the coaching staff.”
The benefits of such an approach — and of such an enviable abundance of star players — were on full display against England. And that depth could play a role again on Sunday in the final.
Amid all the positive vibes after the tense win, there were a number of injury-related questions that could linger over the coming days.
The biggest, of course, will revolve around Rapinoe, who sustained a right hamstring strain in the United States’ victory against France on Friday. Rapinoe played another quarter-hour or so that night before being substituted but was unable to recover in time to face England.
On Tuesday night, Rapinoe said she expected to be healthy enough to play in Sunday’s final. But it seemed much would depend on how her recovery played out this week.
The Americans took the speed bump in stride. Christen Press assumed Rapinoe’s normal spot in the lineup and, within 10 minutes of the opening whistle, supplied the first goal of the match.
Consider, again, that Press is a weapon the United States has simply been resting on its bench, a 30-year-old wing in the prime of her career, with 122 international appearances and 49 goals for the national team — the same goal tally, in fact, as Rapinoe.
Press’s toolbox of skills has led some to wonder if she should be the team’s regular starter on the left wing, over Rapinoe. Press, who meditates before and after every training session, described her competition with Rapinoe as supportive and healthy, and described herself as someone perfectly at peace with her situation.
“Before we played the France game, I kind of looked in the mirror and thought like, I’m so much more ready for this than I have been for any other big moment in my career, ready for whatever role, however many minutes I get,” she said this week. “I feel prepared. I feel confident. And it feels very good.”
Still, Ellis’s injury issues were potentially compounded late in the match when midfielder Rose Lavelle, one of the Americans’ best players throughout the tournament and the engine of its midfield, left the game with her own leg issue. As she grimaced in pain on the field, she could clearly be observed saying, “It’s my hamstring.”
Just like Rapinoe, Lavelle insisted she would be O.K. for the final, even though she had just limped off the field.
In one sense, clearly, Lavelle’s absence would be an enormous loss. More than any American player, she can produce the sort of quick bursts of creative chaos that can shred an opposing team’s defensive plans.
Yet at the same time, it is fairly easy to envision how Ellis might cope if Lavelle cannot recover in time for the final. Already she has shown her trust in midfielder Sam Mewis, who was deemed good enough in the round of 16 to displace Lindsey Horan, one of the world’s best midfielders and a seemingly automatic starter for any team.
“I feel we have a really good, deep bench,” Ellis said. “I called upon other players, and I think they did a fantastic job.”
Ellis has always known the value of her team’s depth, and she has worked hard not to squander it. In the group stage, she made sure all 20 of her outfield players saw some sort of playing time in an effort to keep them fresh and to make them feel involved in ways that went beyond practices and cheering during matches.
That could prove important if she needs to call on some of them to start on Sunday night. But it also gives her a huge amount of flexibility over the course of a match itself.
The final stages of this World Cup are being played in an unprecedented heat wave in France. Players have noticeably lagged late in matches. The ability to bring in a world-class substitute — someone like Press, or a former world player of the year like Carli Lloyd — could help decide a championship.
Ellis, therefore, tells 15 players to prepare as starters. She tells all of them they might be called upon at any moment.
“When that moment comes,” she said she told them, “play like you’re going to make the difference.”