National team newcomer is star on college stage
Megan Rapinoe is stepping up her play on both the national team and for the NCAA defending champion Portland Pilots, writes Graham Hays.
CARY, N.C. -- For Megan Rapinoe, just getting on the field for the U.S. national team during Sunday's international friendly against Canada was an accomplishment.
At the start of the college season last fall, Rapinoe was an unproven commodity for the Pilots. Granted, she was a highly touted prospect after playing a prominent role for the Under-19 national team at the FIFA World Championships in 2004 (an opportunity which led her to redshirt her first year at Portland), but it remained to be seen how she would adapt to playing at the college level alongside Christine Sinclair, one of the most decorated players in the women's game.
Less than a year later, Rapinoe earned her second career cap for the senior national team after entering the game against Canada in the 82nd minute. And she did so as one of only seven players on the U.S. roster with an NCAA national title to their credit, having played the part of Sinclair's sidekick to perfection as Portland joined North Carolina as the only schools with undefeated championship seasons.
In fact, much of the last year for Rapinoe, a player who rose through the ranks as a star in her own right as a Parade Magazine and NSCAA High School All-American, has been spent as someone's understudy. Whether learning from Sinclair or national team role models like Abby Wambach and Aly Wagner, Rapinoe has received a crash course in turning world-class talent into world-class production.
"Honestly, I'm learning so much on the field," Rapinoe said after a practice in which she spent much of the time sending and receiving crosses from Wambach, Wagner, Heather O'Reilly, Christie Welsh and Lindsay Tarpley -- a group that boasts more than 300 caps combined. "This team, these players are so good. They've been [playing] almost as long as I have [been alive], as far as their soccer careers."
And on a team that behaves very much like a family, Rapinoe has learned almost as much off the field.
"I think it's huge off the field, just learning how to be a professional: the ins and outs of the game, the locker room, the travel," Rapinoe said. "And how it's not just on the field, it's not just soccer. There is so much more that goes into it, being mature and kind of growing up."
Not that the girl who turned 21 in July has given up her entire youthful identity.
After redshirting during her first year on campus, Rapinoe had to endure a full spring of training in 2005 without the reward of any games the previous fall. It wasn't an enjoyable experience for someone who could probably empathize with Allen Iverson's famous lament about practicing.
"Oh my God, it was so nice," Rapinoe said of finally taking the field last fall in games. "I mean, it's training a whole spring, and it's six months of kind of just going to school and just training. And I'm not a huge practice person anyway. I definitely love the games so much more than practice."
United States coach Greg Ryan showed plenty of faith in Rapinoe by adding her to the roster for games against Sweden, Ireland and Canada after watching her train with the team since May. He singled out Rapinoe as one of the most creative young players in the national system, but took a subtle dig at her aversion to practice by suggesting that finding the focus for the tedium of preparation may be her next step toward a bright international future.
Even if Rapinoe is a work in progress at the sport's highest level, it appears the message is sinking in. In addition to admitting somewhat sadly that she and her twin sister (and Portland teammate) Rachael curbed the celebration of their 21st birthday because Megan had practice the following two days, she sounds well aware of what will be expected of her on and off the field this fall.
"If not so much in a vocal role, definitely in an on-the-field role," said Rapinoe, a laid-back speaker, about translating her time with the national team into leadership at Portland. "I'm looking forward to it, bringing the experience back that I have from this team -- playing with these players and the best coaches that this country has to offer -- and kind of bringing that experience back. Hopefully I can help out some of the younger players, and even some of the older players."
With Sinclair having moved on after winning two national championships and last year's Honda Broderick Cup as the nation's top female college athlete, Rapinoe is the leading returning goal scorer for Portland after tallying 15 last season. And while that label may sound like more of a statistical side note than meaningful credential, considering Sinclair led the team with 39 goals, one person in a position to know what she's talking about thinks this year's Portland team is very much in Rapinoe's hands.
Seeming to realize how bold a statement she had made, the soft-spoken Canadian star paused and then said with a laugh, "But she's so good, so she'll be fine."
The challenge of reloading without Sinclair is daunting, but the Pilots appear as prepared as any team could be to make another run. Eight players who started at least 20 games last season return, including 32 of the 40 goals that weren't scored by Sinclair (Rachael Rapinoe also returns). And the Pilots aren't likely to be rusty, with nine players having spent the summer playing for some level of national team for the United States or Canada (incoming freshman Sophie Schmidt, who started for the Canadian national team against the United States on Sunday will redshirt to focus on national team commitments).
"It's going to be a lot different," Rapinoe said of life without Sinclair. "It's going to be fun though, to have other people get to step up and get in the limelight a little bit and help our team out."
Sinclair agreed, suggesting several players who worked in support of Portland's high-octane offense will have a chance to see their efforts recognized this season.
"Cori Alexander, the goalkeeper, I don't think she got the credit she deserved last year, just because we scored a bunch of goals," Sinclair said. "But we were definitely in some tight games that she kept us in throughout the course of the season, and then she definitely saved our butts in a couple of playoff games.
"Then players like Lisa Sari, she's a defensive holding midfielder, got no credit whatsoever and got no recognition whatsoever, but she was probably the best defensive center midfielder in the country last year."
Sinclair also talked about midfielder Angie Woznuk and defender Stephanie Lopez, two players who worked both ends of the field as the Pilots allowed just nine goals in 25 games.
It's a deep cast of characters returning to the small school along the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., but even with all of the surrounding talent, the spotlight will unquestionably be shining brightest on one individual.
"There's definitely pressure," Rapinoe said. "But I didn't mind it, I didn't have to carry nearly as much as some people -- as some Canadians did, in particular. But it was actually kind of nice having a superstar like that on my team, for sure. She just took it upon herself."
After serving as memorable an apprenticeship as one could imagine over the last year, Rapinoe may be ready to do the same this year. And if so, losing one of the best players in the history of the college game may not be enough to prevent Portland from making a run at a third title in five years.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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