Portland's two-for-one deal makes postseason waves
Megan Rapinoe established herself as one of the best players in the country. But when she tore her ACL, her twin sister stepped into the spotlight to lead the defending national champs, writes Graham Hays.
LOS ANGELES -- A year after realizing she didn't have enough energy to endure even routine conditioning drills, Rachael Rapinoe found the strength to shoulder a heavier load for the University of Portland women's soccer team than just about anyone could have expected.
Not bad for a player some schools treated like the Katharina to her sister's Bianca during the recruiting process four years ago.
Rachael began this season as the second-most famous Rapinoe playing soccer for the defending national champions, yielding the spotlight to twin sister Megan, who starred as Christine Sinclair's chief sidekick during Portland's unbeaten championship season. A year behind Rachael in eligibility after skipping the 2004 season to play for the United States Under-19 team in the World Championships, Megan scored 15 goals in her first season with the Pilots, nearly 40 percent of the goals not scored by Christine Sinclair in 2005.
After spending part of the summer as one of just a handful of active college players training and playing with the senior national team, Megan scored 10 goals in her first 11 game this fall, giving the new-look Pilots a dynamic offensive presence around which to reload.
All of which changed against Washington State on Oct. 5. Already booked on a flight with teammate Stephanie Lopez to Richmond, Va. to join the national team for a game against Iceland two days later, Megan tore her ACL late in the first half of the game against the Cougars, ending her season. Just minutes earlier, Rachael had scored the first goal of her college career to give Portland a 1-0 lead.
A team in the process of discovering its identity during a grueling nonconference schedule that included one-goal losses at Florida State and at home against North Carolina, as well as a tie against Florida on a neutral field, now had another significant hurdle to overcome. But as coach Garrett Smith pointed out, part of the reality of college sports is dealing with ever-changing rosters.
"You kind of find a different way every year," Smith added. "Rachael is a great example of that, you know, she didn't play at all last year and this year she's really stepped up and filled the void for us."
Having only recently shifted to forward from outside back, where she played in her nine appearances last season, when Megan went down, Rachael wasted little time excelling in the new role. In the 10 games immediately following the Washington State game, she scored seven more goals, including four in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament to help guide the unseeded Pilots to a quarterfinal showdown with UCLA.
"It's always good to score goals, because you know your teammates have confidence in you as well," Rachael said. "And definitely, they have confidence in me, that when they give me the ball, I'm going to be able to do something with it, whether it's distributing back out to them or taking a good look at a shot."
It's a confidence that Rachael had started to lose in herself after two disappointing seasons to begin her Portland career. Hampered by an MCL injury leading in to her freshman season, she made just five appearances in 2004. And things only got worse during the team's title run during her sophomore season. She first noticed the lack of energy, accompanied by pale skin, during her freshman season, but it took hold full bore last fall, leading even Rachael to begin to doubt herself.
"I thought it was because I wasn't fit, and some people thought it was because I wasn't fit," Rapinoe said. "We didn't think it was going to be something that serious. But any time you're going through an injury, and you know personally that you're really struggling through this and it's a struggle any time you do any activity, but you don't know why, especially as an athlete, being competitive and being passionate about your sport, it's the hardest thing you can go through. It's better to know why you can't do it then to not know."
Finally, midway through last season, she was diagnosed with anemia. Described by the National Institute of Health as a "lower than normal number of red blood cells in the blood, usually measured by a decrease in the amount of hemoglobin," anemia in Rachael's case resulted from too little iron in the blood, a problem that affects 20 percent of women in the United States.
With regular blood tests, prescribed iron supplements and a diet including more iron-rich foods like red meat, Rachael has been able to manage the problem and regain both her energy and her color. But where some might understandably feel bitterness toward critics who constantly compared her to her sister or questioned her commitment during the last two seasons, Rachael isn't interested in holding grudges.
"I knew that I was doing the best I could," Rapinoe said. "And I don't fault anyone if they judged me or if they were upset that I couldn't finish running workouts or I wasn't performing, because I wasn't. It just made me feel like I wasn't doing my best just being there for the team. So it was definitely the hardest thing I've ever gone through."
Her body now finally able to comply as she pursues her passion on the field, Rachael is enjoying soccer and enjoying life again.
"Not only that, it brought the joy back to life," Rapinoe said of soccer being fun again. "Ask anyone on my team, and I was a completely different person when I started to get iron back in my body. It's just depressing when you're injured as an athlete."
This is exactly why even her current success is bittersweet at best, coming with her sister unable to leave the sideline to help celebrate a score.
"You say that past tense; it's still hard," Rachael countered when asked how difficult it was to deal with consoling a sister at the same time she was adjusting to a new position. "It's very hard, because when I score, I'd love nothing more than for her to be out there with me. I know this is my role right now on the team. With Megan out, I definitely need to step up, and step up for the team and start scoring and start being a leader out there. But it's so hard having Megan on the sideline, because she wants nothing more than to be out there. So it hurts me to be on the field watching her. But at the same time, everything happens for a reason, so I think it's good for both of us to be put in these roles."
Fraternal twins (Megan is listed as three inches taller), the sisters are different in every way from hairstyle to personality, even if they bear an unmistakable resemblance to each other.
Seconds after arriving from the airport on the team bus, Megan was already giving Jason Brough, the team's outstanding sports information director, a hard time for the jinx he supposedly carries with him on the road. Outgoing and confident, she is as comfortable around the likes of Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly as she is around her college teammates.
Rachael comes across as quieter and contemplative, pondering her answers and letting the words flow gradually, as if each has been carefully considered and approved as accurate.
"Its weird how our personalities have changed over the years," Rachael said. "I was always the shy one when we were little, and then middle school, junior high, I was crazy, outgoing. And now it's kind of shifted back, where I'm maybe a little more of the reserved one, where she's out there with her jokes and her laughter."
It's a distinction that carries over to the soccer field, as well.
"Megan is much more of a risk taker," Rachael said. "She is able to attack players and take them on one-on-one, because she's not as cautious when she plays. Whereas I like to read the game, I like to stand up on the ball, I like to post up and distribute the ball a lot more, whereas she likes to take it herself sometimes and she's not afraid to be selfish at times, when it's needed, and take the shot. I'm a little bit more reserved when I play."
But no matter the differences, or perhaps for the very reason that they've been allowed to explore them, the twins are sisters first and foremost.
"First of all, Megan and I are our biggest critics," Rachael said with a smile that hinted at the kind of past battles which strengthen sisters, even if it would scar others. "We have a lot of expectations for each other, which is nice, because we tell each other how it is. And if I'm playing bad, she'll tell me so I can pick up my game. You know, she's played forward her whole life, where I've only been playing forward for a matter of months. So to have Megan right there by my side, it's my biggest support group, my biggest critic, it just goes hand in hand."
Although Rachael initially wanted to go her own way to attend college on the East Coast, she said she changed her mind around her junior year of high school. Both players made it clear to college coaches that they were a package deal, and Rachael said several schools didn't recruit them when that became known.
The twins didn't play for their high school team, instead focusing on an enormously successful club team that also included Lopez and current Utah star Adele Letro, further allowing Rachael to be overshadowed.
"We knew that we were getting good players in both of them," Smith said of the sisters. "I don't know that everybody else thought that, but we knew they were both good soccer players. I know everybody was after Megan and recognized what Megan could do, but when I saw Rachael play -- you can tell a good soccer player. She may not have been as dynamic maybe as Megan, but she was still a good soccer player."
Through the physical adversity of struggling with anemia to the soccer adversity of shifting positions from forward in spring practice (where she led the team in goals) to outside back when a need arose early this fall and back to forward at midseason, Rachael has shown an immense spirit and desire to play the game. And with all of that hopefully behind her, she's doing a pretty good job of proving Smith right in his assessment of her potential between the lines.
"Playing club with her, I always knew she had great talent," Lopez said. "I just knew it was a matter of time before she would gain her confidence and define for herself her role on our team. And she's coming through for us really huge in the postseason. We really needed someone to step up and she's just handling that very well, and just taking responsibility to put stuff away that she can. And she's scoring great goals. I'm just so excited to brag about her, it's awesome."
But the truly happy ending will be written if the Rapinoe sisters actually get a chance to play together for an entire season next fall.
"I feel sorry for the people that have to go against us," Rachael laughed. "Megan and I have an incredible gift when we play together. I don't even have to look at her; I know where she is at. We're able to instinctively and intuitively read each other's mind and know what we want and where we want the ball. And a lot of people, I don't think, are going to be able to stop that if we're both in the attack. I hope not."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.