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Risk-taking Rapinoe moving on up

USA star Megan Rapinoe sits down one-on-one with FOX Soccer.
USA star Megan Rapinoe sits down one-on-one with FOX Soccer.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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ROCHESTER, New York

The middle-aged woman had come all the way from Minnesota to watch the U.S. women’s national team play Costa Rica. And to loiter in their non-descript hotel lobby in the hope of stealing a glimpse. When she turns and finds herself facing the team’s talisman, she can’t help herself. "Pinoe!" she shouts.

VICTORY LAP

See the best shots from the USWNT win over Costa Rica, as part of their Fan Tribute Tour.

Megan Rapinoe (pronounced Ra-PEE-no) is smaller in person than on TV. The bright blonde bob doesn’t stand out so much when it’s not surrounded by green. She isn’t listed as the most petite player on the team, but she seems it from up close. Short and wispy, she doesn’t fill out the Chicago Bulls halter top or grey leggings she’s wearing.

She’s got nine fingernails painted pink and one green, the markings of a style all
her own. "I would say it’s part tomboy, part hipster, definitely part want-to-be-very-comfortable," she explains. "Fashion is a way for me to express myself. I guess I’m vain in that sense. It’s not a bad thing."

At her best, Rapinoe expresses herself on the field, too. Underpinned by a wonderful two-footed technique and remarkable precision in her passes and set- pieces, she is one of only a handful of players in women’s soccer capable of changing games with a few inspired touches. She is both the product and beneficiary of a new, more technical and free-flowing women’s game.

"This team has always been known for its defensive presence," says fellow midfielder Shannon Boxx. "Something that we’ve been working on is that offensive flair and Megan is the epitome of that."

On the field, as in the wardrobe, she is a maverick of sorts. "Sometimes, I do things that I shouldn’t and the ball goes 50 yards over the goal," she says. "And then sometimes it bangs off the left post and goes in."

She plays a high-risk, high-reward sort of game, taking unexpected shots, sending unconventional passes and dribbling odd routes. "I need to feel like I have that freedom to make mistakes and to just try things," Rapinoe says. "Yeah, a couple of things are going to go weird but we’re also going to gain some special moments."

"I’ve always been a risk taker," she says. "Growing up I had a lot of freedom and room to roam and do what I wanted and I think that’s a huge part of my game."

Rapinoe, 27, is the youngest of six, along with her twin-sister Rachael, the progeny of a blue-collar family in Redding, California. Hers is the classic American soccer tale of a small-town dreamer traveling several hours each way for games and practices, of doing homework in the car, sacrifices made and holidays missed.

She was drafted second overall by the Chicago Red Stars out of the University of Portland in 2009. In 2011, the Philadelphia Independence sold her to magicJack for $100,000, the most expensive transfer fee for a female soccer player ever.

But her national team career has come along in fits and starts. Anterior cruciate ligament injuries to her left knee kept her out of the 2007 Women’s World Cup and 2008 Olympics. When she returned, she frustrated head coach Pia Sundhage with her inconsistency and grappled with a lack of self-confidence. She gained and lost a starting job in 2011 and was used as a super-sub at the World Cup, famously lofting a last-gasp ball into the box for Abby Wambach to head home in the dying seconds of the quarterfinals against Brazil. After reclaiming her spot, Rapinoe broke out at the 2012 Olympics, scoring three goals and leading the team with four assists.

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She’s learned to pick her moments. "The balance is knowing when to keep the ball and be a little more conservative for the sake of the flow of the game and when it’s okay for me to take a chance," she says. This is the product of a long-running dialogue with her outgoing coach.

"Megan is hit or miss," says Sundhage. "She drives me crazy sometimes and sometimes she surprises me and is more clever than I am. That sort of player you can’t have four of them but we have one and she’s very important to the team – you need that spark."

Her team has learned to give Rapinoe the leeway and trust she needs to thrive. "We want her to have the ball a lot," says captain and central defender Christie Rampone. "As defenders it makes our jobs easier because we don’t want to have to defend so much."

She, in turn, has grown to trust her instincts. The creative license pays off when Rapinoe orchestrates a high-octane offense. In Saturday’s 8-0 win over Costa Rica, for instance, she curled in a free kick, scored a second goal off an unexpected shot that the goalkeeper mishandled and deposited a corner right on to Wambach’s head for an assist.

It’s the goal celebrations that make her a fan favorite though. Like the time she sang ‘Born in the USA’ into a field-side microphone. Or when she whipped a note that wished injured right back Ali Krieger a happy birthday out of her sock and held it up for the TV camera to see.

She’s so popular that when she told Out Magazine that she was gay on the eve of the Olympics, it barely seemed to register. A Deadspin headline perhaps best reflected the ho-hum attitude about the latest in a series of understated coming-outs by a celebrity: "I’m Gay,” says Megan Rapinoe. “That’s Nice,” says everyone.

“I didn’t really expect a big hoopla,” she says. “Because most people knew or suspected it. Stereotypically, women athletes are seen as lesbians. It’s almost assumed. It’s interesting because there’s only a few out sportswomen, but when I came out it’s not a huge shock. It was more to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I am gay.’ Being out publicly is important.”

Rapinoe first realized she was gay in college. Her parents took a little time to digest it. "It is hard sometimes for parents," says Rapinoe. "They have hopes and dreams for you as well and they have a projection of what they think your life is going to be and that does change."

But in her liberal Pacific Northwest surroundings, it was hardly anything to be ashamed of. Hers isn’t a story of strife and hiding, like it has been for male gay soccer players. "Everybody was totally accepting of it and perhaps I was blind to the ones that weren’t," she says.

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USA star Alex Morgan is a heart-breaker on and off the field. See why.

"When I first started coming out I was like 'if you don’t like it then f*** you'. I’ve changed that approach now. I try to educate people."

She hasn’t encountered much homophobia though. One time in a college game, the opposing crowd sang Katy Perry’s "I kissed a girl" at her. She thought it was kind of funny.

Rapinoe has a tattoo on her left biceps: Nature ran her course. "I was made exactly the way I was meant to be made in who I am and my personality and the way I was born," she explains.

She’s glad she came out. She’s happier for it. “There definitely is a sort of omission in your life where you can’t be as open as straight players are and it’s nice to have that," Rapinoe says. “It’s nice to say, ‘Yeah I am gay and I’m proud of who I am.’ You live your life very openly and are very transparent anyway but there is a difference in the way I was before and now. I feel very, very authentic now. Everything is out there and that’s nice.”

This contentedness has contributed to her growth on the field, too. “I play bad when I’m not happy,” she says. "I’ve tried to use frustration as motivation and it just doesn’t work for me. When I’m happy, I’m freer and not thinking that much and I can let that creative side come out and know that I can make mistakes. It’s all in my face. If I’m smiling things are going well. And lately I’ve been able to just play with the biggest smile and have fun.”

"She brings so much flair and enjoyment to the team," says Rampone. "She’s built so much confidence and just fun around the game and it shows in the way she plays.”

There’s a second tattoo on Rapinoe’s right wrist. It’s in Arabic. Translated, it reads: Trust yourself.

More Stories From Leander Schaerlaeckens

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