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Megan Rapinoe answers the call to be a player-coach with the U.S. women’s soccer team’s young stars

Rapinoe aims to 'bring the standard that is necessary' to the phenoms who are heading into their first official national team tournament.

Megan Rapinoe (center) at the U.S. women's soccer team's practice in suburban Denver on Tuesday.
Megan Rapinoe (center) at the U.S. women's soccer team's practice in suburban Denver on Tuesday.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff / Staff file photo

DENVER — Whenever a national soccer team unveils its roster for a major tournament, you can usually tell who the last player to make it was.

And since the big international tournaments usually mandate 23-player squads, you’ll hear that someone is “the 23rd player” on a team: a young prospect brought along to experience the big stage, perhaps, or a hard-working veteran rewarded for toiling outside the limelight.

On the U.S. women’s squad for Concacaf’s upcoming World Cup qualifying and Olympics tournament, the 23rd player is also clear.

But this one has two World Cup titles and a runner-up medal, Golden Boot and Most Outstanding Player trophies, an Olympic gold and bronze, a FIFA player of the year award, and two NWSL regular-season championships.

What Megan Rapinoe is about to do for the U.S. women’s soccer team is unlike anything she has done in her career. After more than a decade as one of the program’s most famous players, she’s going to spend the next few weeks as almost a player-coach, guiding the squad’s crop of electric young prospects through their first official competition.

“First and foremost, I’m honest with myself, and I don’t need someone to tell me that I’m 36, almost 37,” Rapinoe said in a wide-ranging conversation with reporters this week.

“I was like, ‘Listen, I think that I have a lot to give, still,’” she said. “I mean, there were still question marks for me personally in the fall of, like, do I want to do this and is it something that I’m passionate about? I feel like playing at this level requires a mental, physical and spiritual commitment to the ultimate goal of winning — and if you don’t have that, it’s kind of miserable.”

» READ MORE: Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe return to the U.S. women’s soccer team for World Cup and Olympics qualifying

‘I want to do that’

Everyone knows that the physical part of it isn’t what it used to be. U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski has already appointed Mallory Pugh as his starting left winger, and Rapinoe has no expectation of playing major minutes this summer.

“For players like Mal and Soph[ia Smith] and Trinity [Rodman], who are forwards, who are playing the same position with Megan — I think that she’s going to be instrumental to help them go through these games,” Andonovski said when he announced Rapinoe’s return. “Because at some point, whether it’s within the game or in between the games, they’re going to need Megan’s voice. And her responsibility is to help them be the best version of themselves.”

Rapinoe is reporting for duty.

“If that’s something that he wants within the team, if that’s something he feels like is needed within the team in order to win the World Cup ultimately, and obviously push on the team to be successful, then I want to do that,” Rapinoe said. “And I think he needed to answer some questions for himself about what the team looks like, and if something like that is going to be necessary or something that he would want.”

The conversations, she said, “were totally honest the whole time about everything, really. Which I appreciate, and he appreciates as well.”

She described herself as a “conduit” between the manager and players.

“Oftentimes, a coach is not going to be able to connect with every single player,” she said. “And sometimes it’s better coming from a player than it is from Vlatko, and we can kind of support each other in that way.”

» READ MORE: Sophia Smith gets a Colorado homecoming with the USWNT as one of the NWSL’s most exciting players

‘The standard that is necessary’

Yet as often as such a player can be necessary, this sort of thing has rarely happened in the U.S. program’s decorated history. Most of the team’s legends either retired after a major tournament, or were retired by the manager not calling them up anymore.

So the question went to Rapinoe: Have you seen anything like this before?

Christie Pearce Rampone at the 2015 World Cup came up. So did Ali Krieger’s surprising return to the fold right before the 2019 World Cup after two fractious years away from Jill Ellis’ squad.

Neither comparison truly fits. The 2015 team was full of veterans, and Rapinoe’s eight months away weren’t so fractious. But there’s a certain part of the Krieger situation that echoes here.

“You’re going to bring the standard that is necessary, and the standard’s kind of like a ‘If you know, you know,’ sort of thing,” Rapinoe said. “There’s a number of us that know it here, but it’s one thing to know it and it’s one thing to be able to pull people to explain it and create that environment where everybody’s sort of rising up. I think ‘Kriegs’ did that, and I think if I can do it as well as her, I think that’s good.”

The chill between Krieger and Ellis after the 2016 Olympics sparked howls of protests among U.S. fans. It also caused issues in the U.S. locker room — and Rapinoe had her own share of issues with Ellis over time.

But she has long had a strong relationship with Andonovski. Before he took over the national team, he managed Rapinoe’s OL Reign in 2018 and ‘19. That foundation helped keep things steady this time.

“I think over the course of time, seeing the rosters and games and the young talent that we have, I think it makes perfect sense,” she said. “I can bring a ton on and off the field and in the locker room, and I can help him do his job.”

» READ MORE: Megan Rapinoe hails ‘a huge step forward’ in U.S. Soccer’s national team equal pay deals

‘I still want to be me’

A few minutes later, she went deeper on the subject.

“I think it’s not for every kind of player,” Rapinoe said. “I think some players are like, if I can’t perform at the level I’m used to all the time and start and do all that — some players don’t want to do that. Some players aren’t interested in that.”

Before the U.S. team’s rabid fan base starts wondering who she’s referring to, she wasn’t referring to anyone. It’s been the case for the program’s entire history, and is the case in just about any sport.

“And it’s not like, oh, I’m better because I’m interested in that, but I just think there’s a little bit more to that,” Rapinoe said. “And I think having Vlatko, as well — not every coach wants that. He’s secure enough to allow me to be who I am in this environment.”

For all that has changed with Rapinoe over time, that environment has not. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“With what he needs from me and what’s expected of me, I need to be able to perform at the very highest level,” she said. “I still have to be me, and I still want to be me. I don’t want to be out there, like, on a half a leg.”

Then Rapinoe lined up a zinger, just as she does her ice-cool penalty kicks.

“We want to go back-to-back-to-back,” Rapinoe said. “That’s some Michael Jordan [stuff].”

It might not be her job anymore to let it fly on the field, but she still knows how to take a shot.

» READ MORE: Megan Rapinoe salutes Sue Bird on the basketball legend’s upcoming retirement