[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT] She's started just one game in the World Cup, yet in her limited minutes midfielder Megan Rapinoe has proved to be one of the most influential attackers on the U.S. team.
Rapinoe set the bar pretty high for matter-of-factness when asked about being replaced by Lauren Cheney in the starting lineup for the first two games of the Women's World Cup and getting in as a sub.
In the second game against Colombia as a replacement for Amy Rodriguez, she’d broken the game open with a spectacular blast from just inside the penalty area five minutes into the second half on a feed from Cheney, and as a celebration raced over to a field microphone to croon “Born in the USA.”
In the final minutes she worked a nice one-two with Cheney that set her up to rip a shot off the crossbar. Interviewed on television a few minutes after the final whistle of the Colombia game, she summed up her contributions thusly: “I think I did pretty well.”
She’d come on for Cheney in the first game against North Korea and scored a goal disallowed for kicking the ball out of the keeper’s hands on a bang-bang play. That was merely a warm-up to a command performance, of sorts.
Of her impromptu tribute to The Boss, she opened up a bit.
“Those big fuzzy microphones are getting in the way of everybody,” she said in postgame interviews. “We thought it would be funny to get those involved and give them their few minutes of glory.”
She and her teammates relished a glory day Sunday, when in the final seconds of overtime stoppage-time and the Americans down by a goal, Rapinoe hit a tracer-like diagonal cross from near the sideline into the Brazilian penalty area. Keeper Andreia came for it, and a defender was there as well, yet neither could stop Abby Wambach from powerfully heading a goal whose images went viral within minutes and awakened America to what its women’s soccer team has been up to.
“Megan Rapinoe just put that ball on my head,” said Wambach, who had scored just once in the tournament. “Luckily I didn't miss and the rest is history, I guess.”
Rapinoe admitted she’d probably never hit a ball that sweet with her left foot in her life, of which she celebrated her 26th birthday a few days after singing about being born in the USA. The native of Redding, Calif., played for the University of Portland – NCAA Division I champion in 2005, her freshman year – and the U.S. U-19s on her way to debuting for the national team in 2006.
A multisport junkie as a youth, she decided to concentrate on soccer while a freshman in high school. As a twin to sister Rachel, who also played at Portland and for U.S. youth teams, her childhood honed a fierce competitive spirit. The sisters would try to beat, sometimes literally, each other in basketball, soccer, you name it.
“Mostly on the basketball court, that’s where our competitive nature comes in,” she says of a sisterly rivalry. “We battled, for sure. We hardly ever finished one-on-one games. It always ended up with one of storming into the house, I thought it was a foul, or she thought it was a foul. One of us would get pissed or whatever. It was kind of funny. I was just good and competitive.
“We had a hoop in the backyard and we actually grew up across the street from a soccer field. It was kind of pick your poison with us. Our parents just let us go and let us figure it out on our own. One of us would come storming into the house if not the other one.”
Both of them were plagued by knee surgeries and other physical issues during their college careers that severely restricted their opportunities to play together. During the Pilots' 2005 title year, she played and started all 25 games, as did current U.S. teammate Stephanie Cox and Canadian international Christine Sinclair. Rachel played just nine games, all as a substitute. Megan played just 13 collegiate games in 2006 and 2007 college seasons because of separate ACL injuries and didn’t return to the national team until 2009.
While Megan was playing for Chicago in WPS two years ago, the Rapinoe Entourage came down from Redding for a game against FC Gold Pride at Buck Shaw Stadium, the same field where the twins, as Pilots, had played college games against Santa Clara University. Rachel, wearing a cast and hobbling on crutches while decked out in shades and a bandana, posed with her sister for photos for probably the 1000th time.
“I might ask her to play a game now that she’s down and out,” deadpanned Megan in jest on her sister’s latest setback. “Tough on her, it would make me feel good, though.”
Rachel is among the Rampone contingent attending games in Germany, and in her serious moments, Megan agrees part of her plays for both of them.
She credits the style of play at Portland as a major factor in her ascent to the national team under U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, who has emphasized a greater emphasis on skill in selecting the squad.
“I think Portland is one of a handful of teams in the country that plays really good soccer, to be honest,” she says. “We like to put the ball on the floor, and keep possession, and play a style that is attractive to watch and attractive to play. It’s very similar to the way Pia wants to play.”
On and off the field, Rapinoe brings something entirely different than the other flank midfielders. Heather O’Reilly buzzes up and down relentlessly to shoot from distance or get to the endline. Cheney, a converted forward, peels away from the opposing back line to torment keepers with shots from distance, headers, or teasing crosses.
Rapinoe? Well, she wears her bleached-blonde hair carelessly tousled, chomps gum impatiently -- hands on hips -- waiting to come into the game, and hits most of the free kicks and corner kicks when not foraging for cracks and crevices to exploit or sending incredulous looks at the referee, as she did when cautioned for a strong tackle against Brazil that went straight to the ball but did show the studs of her shoe. Her defending can be suspect; she lost two confrontations when Fabiana brushed past her, yet also stood up Marta one-v-one in stoppage time of regulation.
“Part of the stereotype of the American game is we’re fit, we’re strong, we’re fast, we’re good athletes, but soccer around the world is evolving so much you can’t just be bigger, stronger, faster, you have to be a good soccer player,” says Rapinoe. “You have to think, you have to be intelligent with the ball.”
Carli Lloyd headed one of her free kicks off the bar against Brazil, but she saved her best for the final moments. After her amazing cross and Wambach’s goal triggered a delirious celebration came the penalty kicks, the fourth of which Rapinoe disdainfully sent past a keeper going the wrong way.