AUCKLAND, New Zealand — As soon as the halftime whistle blows, Megan Rapinoe has her arms outstretched with a water bottle in each hand. She’s alert on the sideline, wearing a substitute’s bib and warm-ups, willing to help her teammates hydrate.
That has been the scene at both U.S. women’s national team group-stage matches so far in this World Cup — the starters jogging off the field and Rapinoe standing at the ready.
A mere four years ago, Rapinoe held a different kind of arms-in-the-air pose. She became famous for throwing her arms up after the goals she scored against France in the World Cup quarterfinals and the Netherlands in the final.
Rapinoe was the center of the soccer universe then. She won the Golden Ball (best player) and the Golden Boot (top scorer) and led the USWNT to back-to-back titles.That is not the role Rapinoe holds now. At 38, playing in her fourth and final World Cup, she doesn’t need to be the star.”Ultimately, we’re at the World Cup,” Rapinoe continued. “This is where everybody wants to be, whether you’re playing 90 minutes or you’re a game-changer or whatever. So, I think it’s similar to what I thought it would be, bringing all the experience that I can and all the experience that I have and ultimately being ready whenever my number is called.”
Rapinoe has seen this movie before. She watched former teammates and American superstars Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd go through this exact same thing. Wambach was the hero at the 2011 World Cup and came off the bench in 2015; Lloyd scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 final and was a sub in 2019.
Wambach and Lloyd both publicly struggled to shift from global star to sub.
Wambach expanded on it in her book, “Wolfpack,” acknowledging it was one of the toughest times in her career. She had to come to terms with having captained the USWNT and scoring more international goals than another soccer player — male or female — then being relegated to the bench at a point at the end of her career when she was trying to win her first World Cup. In the end, Wambach said that experience made her a better leader.
And it all worked out. Wambach came on in the 79th minute of the final vs. Japan so she could be on the field for the final whistle. Lloyd gave her the captain’s armband, and Wambach hoisted the trophy after the USWNT’s 5-2 triumph.
Four years later, Lloyd came off the bench in six of seven U.S. games and wasn’t happy about it. She later told Julie Foudy on her podcast how truly difficult it was for her to balance being a supportive teammate versus wanting to contribute on the pitch.
“I deserved to be on that field that whole World Cup, but I wasn’t,” Lloyd said. “And I think I’ve grown as a person, as a player. It sucked. It absolutely sucked.”
Lloyd still hugged then-coach Jill Ellis and celebrated with her teammates on stage during the trophy ceremony. But two things can be true at the same time — despite the joy of winning it all, Lloyd called it “the worst time of my life.”
Rapinoe was on both of those teams and had ample time to prepare for her turn out of the spotlight. She hasn’t complained about her new role and has maintained she’s OK with it.
“It’s funny because I feel like I can totally still be everything I want to be, but obviously understanding that I’m not playing all the minutes,” Rapinoe told FOX Sports earlier this year. “I kind of just don’t really care. I don’t really want that. When I’m called upon, I’m ready, and I love that.
“But I also realize I can’t do that anymore. I’m not going to be stressed about not starting or not playing as much as other people. That’s just not the reality, and that’s not what I can bring.”Rapinoe joked this week that maybe you cry in the shower or “with your friends in the sauna” about not playing the minutes she once did. And she suggested she and other bench players, such as Lynn Williams, “could have helped” the USWNT beat the Dutch in the second group-stage match.
Rapinoe wasn’t upset or trying to rile anyone up. She was simply giving an opinion on a hot-button topic.Plus, she’s not the only player at this stage of her career at this tournament.
Brazil legend and the tournament’s all-time leading goalscorer Marta, 37, is coming off the bench for the Selecao in her sixth World Cup. Then there are 40-year-old captains Christine Sinclair of Canada and Onome Ebi of Nigeria, who are also playing in their respective sixth World Cups and learning how to navigate life from the sideline.
Two years ago following the Tokyo Olympics, Rapinoe and U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski had a conversation in anticipation of this summer. Andonovski told Rapinoe that if she was healthy and fit, she would make the roster. He knew he’d need her leadership with the amount of young players projected to play in their first major tournament. And there are indeed 14 U.S. rookies this year.
“The thing with Megan is that she is very important for this group,” Andonovski said last summer. “Her experience going through adversity, going through tough times, getting on top, her winning mentality, her knowledge and understanding is very valuable for the group.”
Rapinoe said she and Andonovski are “chatting all the time,” especially now that they are in the thick of the tournament. Sometimes, it’s as if Rapinoe is half-player, half-assistant coach. She has Andonovski’s ear, and he values what she has to say.
“Obviously, if I can’t be playing, I can still see the game and see what’s happening, whether that’s at halftime or after the game,” Rapinoe said. “We have a very close relationship, and it’s not so much like every day we’re meeting. But I feel like we can just look at each other and know one of us has something to say.”The offense doesn’t run through Rapinoe like it used to. But she still adds a spark, even if most of the time now it’s not directly by being on the field.
“I mean still every day in training, I’m gonna try to bust your ass, you know?” Rapinoe said. “And that makes them better, that makes me better. That makes the team better.”