Joga Rapinoe

We both thought she was Brazilian. She had so much flair we figured it must be that way. Dummy this, flick that, one-two here, beat this player one-on-one, nutmeg that one. No big deal. The Women’s Professional Soccer match we were watching finished 0-0; it was one of those Southern evenings had you sucking air as if through a straw; my buddy and I sat through a downpour and the resulting swelter and were sweating through our already soaked replica soccer jerseys; I had very little to take home from that match (other than a coupon for a Spicy Chick-Fil-A sandwich and seeing Hope Solo in person). But I had her. She had dark, shortish hair and an olive complexion. We didn’t know who she was, but we figured she must be Brazilian.

A few weeks ago I was watching the final USWNT tune-up for the 2011 World Cup against Mexico. There she was. It took me several minutes to realize I was watching the same person I saw play for the Chicago Red Stars a year prior. She had blond hair and paler skin but the swagger was still there. It was controlled this time. Disciplined. Short pass here, cross there, maintain possession there. She was wearing a USWNT jersey, with “Rapinoe” emblazoned on the back. “Rapinoe,” I said to myself, stressing the first syllable (my roots in Atlanta hip-hop pushing me to hear “rap” in her name). I Googled her thinking you can be Brazilian and have American citizenship.

She wasn’t. She was from California. Spent high school playing club football with the no. 1 ranked (at the time) club team in America, Elk Grove United. Went to college at Portland, where she missed her first season due to competing with the US for the U-19 World Cup. Took the next two years to dominate D-I soccer (25 goals, 15 assists) before she blew out one of her knees, effectively ending her college career. Plied her trade in the WPS as the second overall draft pick for the Chicago Red Stars (I saw them play the Atlanta Beat)[1] and eventually resumed playing for the USWNT, just in time for the 2011 World Cup.

Perhaps it’s my hipster tendencies, but I tend to form a fascination with obscure or relatively unknown examples of (admittedly perceived) greatness. The first jersey I ever bought (even before my Villa jersey) was Sergio Aguero’s Atletico Madrid away kit. I saw a Youtube video by chance, read a profile or two. I was hooked. I was sure he was the next second biggest thing (Messi was still the next big thing but he was too popular already), and I wanted to demonstrate to anyone I played pickup with that I was on the bandwagon early. I was the same way with Sebastian Giovinco (that one hasn’t quite panned out, yet) and Ashley Young[2]. When I saw Rapinoe play in Atlanta, I subconsciously developed this same sort of fascination. It laid dormant for a year or so, but seeing her play for the USA cemented a sort of personal fandom that made me even more interested in the World Cup. I wanted her to succeed as a validation of my ability to appraise greatness (you could call it a validation of my taste in soccer).

I was disappointed when I heard she’d be losing her starting position to Lauren Cheney. I also expected the usual amount of griping, veiled media allusions, and angst (there are too many examples to link to, but one very prescient example is Hope Solo in WWC 2007). None of that sentiment has materialized; whether it’s the spirit Pia Sundhage has attempted to cultivate among the team or sheer force of will, Rapinoe accepted the loss of her starting position as gracefully as possible (after the USA’s semifinal victory, Abby Wambach remarked “She’s not sitting on the bench pouting. She’s sitting on the bench planning”). That impressed me[3]. Moreover, she was the definition of super-sub (think Cesc Fabregas in Euro 2008 or Jason Terry in this year’s NBA finals) so far this World Cup. According to Paul Carr of ESPN, in 219 minutes with Rapinoe on the pitch, the USWNT has six goals and 20 shots in box. In 261 minutes without her, USA has 5 goals and 9 shots in box. The statistics are similar with passing numbers.

When Rapinoe was introduced against Brazil, Marta had just equalized from the spot. Brazil was pressing. The US looked firm, but we didn’t want this to go to extra time for obvious reasons (Marta). I remarked to the people at the bar I was with, “Rapinoe’s good. I’ve seen her play. She could be a big deal for this game.” I saw her throw herself about the pitch, deliver cross after cross after cross. “Her delivery’s been very good all game,” I said aloud. Marta scored. The US soldiered on. We gave up hope in the bar. Then that moment. Rapinoe was the provider of the cross, obviously. “I told you, man,” I repeated over and over again to the people around me. Suddenly Rapinoe was everywhere. Quotes, TV interviews, her name was on the lips of ESPN anchors, Twitter pundits. When she came on against France in the 65th minute, the score again 1-1, the US scored two goals (in the 79th minute and again in the 82nd). She needed 14 minutes to warm up. Again, after the match, she was everywhere, and the stats supported her.

She got the start in the final against Japan. She looked really good for large parts of the game. The pass that she played to Alex Morgan for the US opener…The emotion of the moment was too intense to really put effectively into words. I think we all got a glimpse of what to expect from the US in the next Women’s World Cup with that interplay. By the time the game got into extra time, I could tell she was drained. Not quite as sharp as at the beginning of the game. Then again, she had been super-subbing throughout the tournament–a tall order to come out and play for two full hours after that. To be honest, it’s tough to finish writing this story. I felt as if I had been running for two hours when the game finished, and feel no different the day after. As I sat in the bar after the match was over, completely numb, watching Abby Wambach talk to the team gathered in a circle, Rapinoe stood mutely on its fringes. I thought about the way my personal fandom had changed and grown. She no longer looked Brazilian at all–she didn’t need to. I feel more convinced than ever that the US can put out players that can play passes like Pirlo and dribble with the suaveness of Berbatov. One thing I know for certain: the next World Cup, I can’t wait to see more Joga Rapinoe.

[1] Amy Rodriguez was first overall, and Brandi Chastain and Brianna Scurry went in later rounds.

[2] Also the band Yeasayer.

[3] I loved it when she gave an interview and talked about being excited to get on the field to “do her thing.” She also tweeted “Game day!!!! Biggest game for us thus far, and feeling like I wanna get a little bit wild!” before the US/Brazil match.

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One Response to Joga Rapinoe

  1. Nate says:

    Great write-up! I loved watching Rapinoe play this year in the WWC. The energy and enthusiasm was astounding… I’d never seen her play before. She was amazing through the tournament. Makes me wish I’d been to a Red Stars game or ten when they were still around.

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