Megan Rapinoe knows about the elephant in the room.

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She will soon be 37 and has only started one game for the OL Reign in the Women’s National Football League season this season due to injuries. However, U.S. women’s team head coach Vlatko Andonovski selected her as one of 23 players for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers starting July 4, the day before her birthday.

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Rapino, she and Andonowski say, will play a very different role than the one the world is used to seeing her in.

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“We have a really young team,” Rapino told Sportzshala, “and I feel like I can bring them in as a mentor, in training, to be heard by them, the level of professionalism and understanding of the style that Vlatko wants to play. , as well as [being] This guide to what the coaching staff wants and what the players are ultimately going to do on the pitch was part of the squad selection.

“If people don’t like it, that’s fine. They are not the coach of the national team. Vlatko is the coach, and in the end everything falls on him and what he wants and what he is willing to put his reputation and the reputation of the team on. After all, if he fails, he will be fired, and he knows it, and I think he agrees with that. and that’s good too.”

Much of the world knows Rapino for her role as the leader of the United States’ triumph at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. With her unmistakable pink hair, Rapinoe won the Ballon d’Or and the Golden Boot for best player and scorer, while the US won a second consecutive world title. Fight with the US Football Federation for equal pay and protest against the Trump administration.

After that magical month in France, Rapino now says, she felt stuck in a “hamster wheel.” Her life changed completely as her popularity grew, and she found herself struggling to balance the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects with the usual physical demands, which became more and more demanding with age. The Olympics were postponed by a year until 2021, and the US ended up with several bad stretches of play in that tournament to win the bronze medal. Rapinoe scored twice in a 4–3 win over Australia in that third-place game.

Then came the break. Beginning in November, Andonowski deliberately kept out longtime veteran national team players, including Rapino, from training camp. His the plan was to get the best view on younger, less experienced players to see if they can contribute to bigger things like qualifying and ultimately the World Cup. Earlier this month, Andonowski revealed that in late 2021, he and Rapino discussed her possible return to the team.

“She understood from that conversation that we were going to bring in a lot of players, we were going to test a lot of players,” Andonowski said. “We want to give young players many minutes and opportunities to play and give us the opportunity to appreciate as much as possible. But after all is said and done, if she is healthy and capable of getting minutes, she will be on the list. We know what Meghan is capable of.”

From thoughts of retirement to rebirth

Andonowski says that at some point in qualifying, young American players will need Rapino’s experience to handle a difficult situation. Rapino was ready to qualify in 2010 – the last time Mexico hosted the tournament – when the US lost to Mexico in the semi-finals and had to go through a play-off with Italy to become the last team to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. It was the closest the U.S. women’s team has ever come close to not qualifying for the World Cup.

Several veterans of that near disaster remain active. Rapinoe said that no two player situations are the same, and that over the past nine months of this roster review process, people have very often grouped veterans together. (Alex Morgan also returns to the team for qualifying. She leads the NWSL with 11 goals in 10 games.) Everyone who gets called deserves it, Rapino said, and even players who didn’t get called deserve to be included too.

“The rosters are not just a selection: go pick the best players and hope for the best,” Rapinoe said. “It’s about creating an organism that works together on and off the field, that doesn’t necessarily work harmoniously all the time, but that the right parts fit for certain reasons and for reasons that most people don’t understand.”

Injuries played a role in public skepticism about Rapino’s return to the national team. The day after feeling fully recovered from her nagging ankle injury this spring, she pulled a calf muscle. Then her return to the field for the OL Reign, which she needed to do to show she was qualified for selection to the national team, was delayed.

During this time, she says, Rapino grew personally frustrated, so much so that she sometimes thought about retirement — not because she wanted to, but because it seemed like the only way to break the cycle. Rapinoe thanks his fiancee Sue Bird — who announced last week that she would retire at the end of this WNBA season, her 21st — helping her deal with those feelings as someone goes through a similar process. These are thoughts about the past, Rapino says.

“I think having someone who knows what it means well when I say, ‘I want to retire right now, I’m so upset,’ it might not actually mean it,” Rapino said. “It actually means a lot of different things. So being able to be with her and she with me is the greatest gift.”

As Team USA’s training camp is convened in Colorado this week ahead of World Cup qualification, Rapino said she’s in a much better position now. The outside world saw some of her physical struggles as she tried to get back on the field this spring, but didn’t see her daily internal battles with herself.

“I feel like I’m on the other side of healing right now, physical and emotional, and getting to a place where it feels new,” Rapino said. “Because I couldn’t do what I just kept doing after 2019. It was like a hamster wheel and it didn’t feel like a choice and now I feel like I’m actually making a choice. My role is different and I think I understand what my role is and I’m comfortable with it – I’m really excited about it. It’s kind of a combination of the things I’ve been feeling the last couple of weeks, I feel like the weight has been lifted. But I’m also like, “Oh my God, I’m excited again.” “

In addition to leading, Rapinoe still has an uncanny ability to instantly change results, being unpredictable both in open play and set pieces. She is also simply reliable, which is important for coaches in stressful situations. As Reign Head Coach Laura Harvey said in May“I would put my mortgage on Megan Rapinoe to get a fine.”

Growing her game

Harvey and Andonowski were instrumental in Rapinoe’s career. The affable winger is best known for her triumphs on the world stage, but Rapino credits the evolution of her game, which helped the Americans to the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, during her time at the Seattle club. especially Harvey and Andonowski, who were both her trainers at Reign.

“I feel like I owe a lot to the kingdom for my national team career,” Rapinoe said. “I had two of the best if not the best coaches in the world coaching here and I could play under them. Some of the best players in the world [were here]… I feel like this is where my game grew. I think before I got here, it was like, “Yes, I’m talented, I’m on the national team, we do things, we’re successful.” But I feel like when I got here my game completely changed and I really took it to the next level. I just owe so much to this club.”

Andonowski coached Reign before taking over the national team and in this role he insisted that Rapino could still be better improving the accuracy of her passing and affecting the game in small moments, such as a quick throw-in to catch an opponent by surprise. He said that Rapino had dominated the 2019 World Cup the year before.

“I didn’t want her to be known as a Pino who can hit the ball,” Andonowski said in 2018 as Reign’s coach. “I wanted her to be known as Pino, who can change the game. How? Who cares? restart – it doesn’t matter. Be unpredictable.”

Harvey was the original coach of what was then the Seattle Reign before it was bought by the owners of Olympique Lyonnais and she oversaw what was arguably the most dominant team in NWSL history in 2014 and 2015. The Reign went 16 games unbeaten in 2014 en route to the first of two consecutive NWSL Shields, but each year they lost the NWSL championship to Andonowski’s FC Kansas City teams.

Ten years later in the NWSL and many great Reign teams later, the playoff championship trophy still eludes the franchise. Rapinoe is one of three original Reign players to have been on the team since the 2013 inaugural season (among 21 who have remained active in the league since that inaugural season). Jess Fishlock is one of the others, and while she was the league’s MVP in 2021, she’ll turn 36 before next season. Add that context to the short-term credit of Kim Little, who was the engine behind those glorious Reign teams and the league’s MVP of 2014, and the arrival of Tobin Heath and forward Jordyn Huitem, and it suggests that the Reign is all-out on the final end of this year’s drought.

“I’m really motivated and focused on bringing the title to a club that I think really deserves it and got it right,” Rapinoe said. “I feel [we play] a style of football that has inspired not only here but all over the world.”

Before she returns to Reign for the long run of the NWSL season, Rapino will help direct…