Alex Morgan’s header. Christine Sinclair’s hat trick. Marie-Eve Nault’s hand ball. And Christina Pederson.
Oh, Christina Pederson.
Editors had plenty of options when picking headlines for Monday’s Miracle in Manchester, all of which was bad news for Megan Rapinoe. Not that she seemed to care. She was in the right spirits after a match, relegated to a footnote when, under most circumstances, she should have been the story.
Two goals in an Olympic semifinal? The group is small: Wei Haiying (China, 1996), Cristiane (Brazil, 2008), Angela Hucles (USA, 2008), and now Megan Rapinoe. And Christine Sinclair, of course.
Part of the reason that list is so short (in addition to the accomplishment being difficult): Women’s soccer at the Summer Olympics hasn’t been around long. This is only its fifth tournament. Still, if you take out all those caveats, you’re left with have an elimination match between rivals. The stakes: A spot in a major tournament final, the world champions waiting on the other end. The only bigger stakes were the ones that awaited the winner, yet both Sinclair and Rapinoe gave potentially career-defining performances.
Long after Sinclair’s retired, they’ll talk about her hat trick against the United States. If history’s fair to Rapinoe, it will note she was the reason the U.S. were in position to pull off a miracle.
There had been qualms about Christine Sinclair’s showings in big matches, but nobody will be surprised to see her name among the best goal scoring performances in Olympic history. Now with 143 international goals, Monday’s match will serve as a breakout moment for a overshadowed star. Sinclair has been just as prolific as Abby Wambach while receiving a fraction of her publicity. It’s about time that changed.
Megan Rapinoe, however, does not have Sinclair’s resume. Before the World Cup, she had been a squad player for the United States, starting on the bench for most of the States’ big matches. At Germany 2011, although she tallied a goal and three assists, Rapinoe only started two of six matches. Whereas her former University of Portland teammate (two years older) has appeared 189 times for Canada, Rapinoe has “only” 57 caps. Her 15 goals rank eighth amongst this year’s U.S. Olympians.
But without much fanfare, Rapinoe’s status changed in Great Britain. Perhaps it’s her connection with the fans or a personality that makes it seem she’s always accessible, but Rapinoe had become one of the fan’s starters, even if she’s only solidified that role this summer.
Now, Rapinoe’s part of a group that’s redefined Pia Sundhage’s formerly static starting XI. Along with Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Kelley O’Hara, Rapinoe is giving U.S. fans a glimpse of Canada 2015’s core. She’s part of a group that grew up inspired by the 99ers, yet unlike the other women who’ve claimed starting roles, Rapinoe is already well into her post-college career. Sundhage’s four other changes are all 23-24 years old. Rapinoe turned 27 last month.
As important, Rapinoe is four years removed from her last days at Portland. In 2009, while the U.S.’s next stars continued to hone their skills in college, Rapinoe went to Women’s Professional Soccer – the professional league that promised to be the world’s standard for the women’s game. Selected second overall by Chicago in the league’s first draft, Rapinoe started a three-year journey that saw her go from the Red Stars, to Philadelphia, to an infamous magicJack squad that paid an eye-boggling $100,000 to get her from the Independence.
Interestingly (and for those of us who loved WPS, perhaps disappointingly), Rapinoe is the only starter whose national team status has improved with her WPS experience. Cheney and Heath were embedded in the pool based on their college credentials. O’Hara never played defense in WPS, while Morgan’s only league experience was during its chaotic third season. Amy Rodriguez, the only player picked ahead of Rapinoe in the 2009 draft, saw her national team career regress during her roller coaster WPS career.
Rapinoe, on the other hand, was restored by WPS. After breaking into the national team setup in 2006, she tore her ACL in 2007, not only missing her junior year at Portland but also moving out of the picture for the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics. After one more year with the Pilots, Rapinoe left school (forgoing an extra year granted by the NCAA) and went pro. During the league’s three seasons, Rapinoe made 52 appearances and scored six goals, missing much of the 2011 campaign while in Germany.
With WPS folding earlier this year, Rapinoe may be the only example of what a domestic league can do for the national team. Her time in Chicago was crucial to reestablishing her place in the team’s set up. Although she was already getting games with the team, Rapinoe was able to fast-forward a career that injury had tried to curtail, getting matches week-in, week-out in (what was then) the world’s most talented league.
Now, thanks to two goals in an Olympic semifinal, Rapinoe’s WPS experience could be relegated to a footnote on her career’s resume. She has the talent to play in any league in the world (and start for almost any team). Having already ventured down to Australia for a brief sojourn with Sydney FC, Rapinoe could become one of the few U.S. stars to embrace opportunities overseas, even if that’s only splitting time between Australia and whatever league sprouts up in the U.S.
With one of the more effervescent personalities in the sport, Rapinoe won’t be short of options. In the year she’s been starting for Pia Sundhage, she’s established herself as one of the world’s elite wide players. After her Olympics performances, any opportunity may literally be a phone call away.
Her Monday double may have been overshadowed, but with star power that’s likely to keep her on the map through the next World Cup, Rapinoe won’t be forgotten.