Win or lose, Megan Rapinoe’s voice has never been so loud 2 months ago

Win or lose, Megan Rapinoe’s voice has never been so loud

Rapinoe is expected to return for the US against the Netherlands on Sunday

Whether or not she ends up on the winning side in Sunday's final, it will be difficult to look back on the 2019 World Cup without thinking about Megan Rapinoe.

A strained hamstring kept the 33-year-old out of the US women’s national team’s semi-final victory over England, but Rapinoe has already left an indelible mark on the tournament.

With five goals to her name - four of which came in nervy knock-out wins against Spain and France - the midfielder holds a strong claim to being named player of the tournament.

But Rapinoe’s impact has been felt far beyond the field of play, with her vocal dismissal of a potential White House reception sparking headlines around the globe.

The day after she coolly dispatched two penalties to guide the US past Spain in the last 16, a video of Rapinoe - recorded weeks ago - circulated online. “I’m not going to the f*cking White House,” she told the camera - provoking a direct response from President Donald Trump on Twitter.

Despite the extra scrutiny this placed on her before a crucial quarter-final against host nation France, Rapinoe faced the media on the eve of the game. Apologising only for the expletive used, she doubled down on her assertion that she had no intention of paying Trump a visit.

As her bright pink hair and composure on the pitch suggests, Rapinoe is comfortable in the spotlight.

The exchange with Trump underlined what many already knew about Rapinoe’s fearless nature - that she is undaunted at the prospect of using her platform to stand up for what she believes in.

As well as being a leading voice in the USWNT’s battle for equal pay with their male counterparts, she has been vocal about LGBT rights and was the first white professional sportsperson to take a knee during the national anthem in a show of solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Though US Soccer have since introduced a law ordering players to ‘stand and honour the flag’ during the anthem, Rapinoe refuses to sing it.

Rapinoe

“There may be a few people who have concerns with some of Megan's actions, positions or beliefs, but the number of people who have a positive respect for Megan far outnumbers those who have a negative feeling,” says Kristen Schreder, the former mayor of Redding, in Northern California, where Rapinoe was born and raised.

“We appreciate her connection to the community and I think it goes both ways.”

Home to 90,000 people, Redding, according to Schreder, has maintained its "small town feel". 

Growing up in the Sacramento Valley, Rapinoe attended Foothill High School along with her twin sister, Rachael. Her mum, Denise, still works in the local restaurant, Jack's Grill. Rapinoe returns regularly to deliver soccer clinics to local youngsters and the road leading to Redding’s California Soccer Park has been named in honour of her accomplishments.

It is clear that Rapinoe’s connection to home is where she derives much of her strength.

While a small minority of the Redding population, which is 50% registered Republican, have opposed Rapinoe’s decision not to sing the national anthem, what matters most to Schreder is the way Rapinoe used her profile to help the town through one of the darkest chapters in its history.

Last summer, while Schreder was still standing as mayor, Redding was decimated by wildfire. Eight people died and thirty-five thousand were displaced from their homes as the flames engulfed the region. Eager to help in any way she could, Rapinoe reached out, starting a fundraiser that generated $175,000 for local families.

"Megan stepped up before the fire was even halfway put out,” Schreder remembers. 

“She contacted Shasta Community Foundation and said she wanted to do something to help out.”

As well as helping with financial support, Rapinoe used soccer as a vehicle to repair the wounds caused by the wildfire. Through her connections, local families were invited to watch the USWNT’s match with Chile in San Jose in the weeks that followed.

“Megan was actually injured for the game, but she spent at least an hour before the game with the kids, having pictures, talking to them.

“It was great excitement for the kids and a really nice event for them and their families after all that had happened. She’s a role model.”

It was no surprise that Rapinoe turned to soccer as she came to Redding’s aid. The sport has always been her first love, but her journey to the top of the game hasn’t been easy.

It was in Redding that Danny Cruz first discovered the footballer that would one day become the USWNT’s leading light. Back then, Cruz was Director of Coaching at Elk Grove Pride in Sacramento. He travelled to Redding with one of his junior sides for a tournament, and used the opportunity to look for new recruits.

“It wasn’t a competition we normally went to as it was such a low-division tournament," Cruz remembers.

"I had a brand new team, though, so I wanted to see how good we were. We won the tournament, but they - Megan and her sister Rachael - were the best two players involved.”

After the competition, Cruz spoke to the girls and their parents, telling them about his team on the off-chance they were interested in signing up. Aware this would involve the family making a six-hour round trip to attend training sessions - sometimes as many as four a week - he didn’t expect to hear back.

“To my surprise, they turned up,” he says. “They were part of the team for several years."

Even at such a young age, Rapinoe, Cruz recalls, was already displaying signs that she was destined for the very top. Joining the team as a 15-year-old, her footwork, speed of play and vision was considerably more advanced than her peers. Combined with her obvious technical ability, she possessed a steely determination to eventually reach the national team setup.

“Megan’s goal from the very beginning was to make the women’s national team and to play at the very highest level,” says Cruz.

“The pathway is a lot easier when you have the passion and the desire Megan had back then."

Cruz coached Rapinoe until she departed for the University of Portland. At the time her choice of college raised eyebrows as she rejected offers from the more illustrious sporting institutions of North Carolina and UCLA.

“She’s always known her own mind,” Cruz laughs.

He remembers her as a model team player in the Elk Grove days, though one that was never afraid to back her own individual talent when necessary.

Once, while playing in an Under-17 game against one of the top-ranked sides in the country, he recalls how Rapinoe decided to take matters into her own hands to change the course of the game.

“She got pissed off at the rest of the team. She ran all the way to the back and yelled at her sister, who was playing in defence, ‘Give me the goddamn ball.’

“Her sister did, and she dribbled past the whole team, scored a goal and we ended up winning. It was like something Maradona would do.

"After that, she’d proved her point."

Cruz, who now coaches the Under-17 boys at San Jose Earthquakes, remains in contact with Rapinoe. He speaks of his pride at her ascent to the pinnacle of the sport.

"She is in the right spot at the right time to say something that people might hear," he adds.

It’s unlikely Rapinoe will pass up the opportunity. Even factoring in Alex Morgan's viral tea-sipping goal celebration on Tuesday, the 33-year-old remains the most tweeted-about player of the entire World Cup.

Rapinoe’s profile has never been higher than it is at this moment and, as Donald Trump now knows, she isn’t afraid to let both her voice and her feet do the talking.