How many caps do you think Megan Rapinoe has? 40? 50? Actually, it’s just 24. Still, if it seems like she’s been around a long while, that’s because she has. It’s just that the minutes have been tough to come by for the talented flank midfielder who has overcome major injury and illness to earn a consistent starting spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team.
When you take her talent on the field and combine it with an effervescent personality, a wry sense of humor, the ability to laugh at herself and pretty much anything else, as well as a mop of aerodynamic spikey hair (when the proper hair products are applied), Rapinoe has star qualities. She’s even known as one of the best goal celebrators on the U.S. team.
But to be a star, she needs to be on the field. If her timing and luck was poor over the past five years, it seems to be turning in her favor in 2011. With about four months before the start of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, she is poised to play a key role for the United States.
“First of all, I have to be fit to play 90 minutes, but I think I’m definitely on my way,” said Rapinoe. “I’ve had a really good first part of the year, but I want to be an impact player for 90 minutes. Late in the game, if you are not being impactful, you are not being useful. The first thing is getting fit, but then always trying to keep myself involved in the game and being dangerous. I think I have the ability to be dangerous at any moment and use my skills and creativity. I have to be a player who can create something in the 80th and 90th minute, because that’s when you want to be on the field, when things are getting tough and things are tight. That’s the most fun part as a player.”
Supremely talented on the ball, Rapinoe plays with a unique flair and ability to take her dribble inside or down the wing. She can change a game in an instant, and did just that in the second leg of the USA’s Women’s World Cup playoff series against Italy at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., last Nov. 27. The U.S. scored its lone goal when she beat her defender soundly into the left side of the penalty box and fired a shot that was parried by the Italian goalkeeper into the path of Amy Rodriguez, who finished to give the Americans a 2-0 series win on aggregate.
She brings speed and scoring ability to the U.S. attack while seeing most of her time at left flank midfield. It is a position for years monopolized in a world class fashion by Kristine Lilly.
“You don’t replace a legend, you just can’t,” said Rapinoe. “I’ll just try to come in and hopefully replicate some of things that she did. We’re similar in some ways in our creativity and the way we see the game, but it was great to play with her for as long as I did. I learned a lot. If I can get a third of the caps and a third of the goals she got, I’ll consider that a good career.”
One of the USA’s most dynamic players on the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup team, she red-shirted what would have been her freshman season at Portland to play in the World Cup, and then was a key player on the Pilot’s undefeated 2005 NCAA Championship team, scoring 15 goals with 13 assists. She was arguably the top freshman in the country.
Rapinoe worked her way into the full national team in the summer of 2006 before her sophomore season at UP and then on Oct. 1 of that year, scored her first two international goals in a 10-0 thrashing of Chinese Taipei at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Just four days later while playing for Portland against Washington State, she tore her left ACL, thus beginning the descent into a deep soccer abyss which took her two years to escape.
She spent a year of hard work getting healthy, but just before the 2007 season, she tore it again. Back-to-back ACL tears have been known to end soccer careers. But not Rapinoe’s.
“I know this sounds weird, but getting hurt was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said. “It really gave me a different perspective. Before, everything was going how it was supposed to be, and I wasn’t really appreciative of what I was doing and what it took to be there. The injury grounded me in a lot of different ways. The rehab process makes you stronger on all fronts, mentally and physically. I feel stronger and a better person for it. I would never wish it on anyone, but I don’t wish I could take it back.”
After finishing her second comeback, she had an excellent 2008 season at UP and started to once again show the form that two years earlier had made her one of the USA’s rising young stars. Her play caught the attention of U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage who, after a narrow focus on players for the Olympics last year, was now starting to cast a wider web in search for young talent that could contribute during next cycle on the long road to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
She was called into the team in January of 2009 for the first time in two and half years, had a very good training camp and made the roster for the Algarve Cup. Heading into that tournament, she had just four caps, but played in all four games, the latter three being starts, and scored the winning goal in a group match against Norway.
She would play in seven matches in 2009 and scored another great goal against Canada, but then in January was struck down by viral meningitis, basically an infection in her spinal fluid. We will spare the reader the details, but it was not pretty.
“I definitely had some good games in 2009 and I was feeling really good, feeling strong and then got just hit hard by the sickness,” said Rapinoe. “It totally wiped my immune system, and I really didn’t get over it until the end of the WPS season. Coming into that season, I didn’t have a base of fitness and never really felt fit until the end of the season and that really took a toll. It took a long time to get better, at the time I didn’t realize how long it was going to take. It was more frustrating than anything, not being fit and not feeling your best.”
Since returning to the team in 2009, and even with the missed time due to illness, she has started 16 of her 20 matches, but has averaged just 54 minutes a game over her 24 total caps. It’s her goal to show Pia Sundhage that she is a player that can be counted on for an entire match.
“I think the biggest thing for me now is being a factor for 90 minutes,” said Rapinoe. “I think that at certain times during the game, for certain stretches, I’ve played really well and been an instrumental part of the team, and I think for other stretches, I haven’t been. Part of that is fitness, but part of that is that mental focus of being there the whole game and that’s a skill in itself. I struggle with that at times and it’s something I can work on. I want to be a presence all game. If I can do that, I can be very successful and help the team be very successful.”
At 25-years-old, Rapinoe feels the last few years have seen great personal evolution in her growth as a professional. Now that she’s climbed and scratched her way into the starting lineup, she plans to do what it takes to stay there.
“I think I’ve learned a lot about taking care of my body,” said Rapinoe. “That’s your tool and it’s the most important thing. If you can’t go because of your body, it doesn’t matter how good you could be. It’s cliché, but I’m really trying to focus and take something out of every training session, whether it’s a light one or an intense one. I want to be plugged in mentally. I think I’m a smart player and I read the game well, but if I’m not plugged in it doesn’t matter. You can train that mental focus and make good decisions the whole game.”
Sundhage knows that talent she has in Rapinoe. But she also knows that she wants to see more of it. And it seems that Rapinoe is delivering.
“The first time I saw her, I said to myself, ‘that’s a good player,’” said Sundhage. “Then she was up and down. She was sick, and in games she can zone out. But she does have the talent. She is unique in many aspects, in the way she reads the game, in her technique and she’s pretty good in the air. So she has all the tools, but it comes down to how much she wants it. It’s all about attitude and if we have a 90-minute practice, she needs to be there mentally for 91 minutes. But from what I’ve seen recently, we are seeing a different Megan Rapinoe and that’s a good thing for this team.”