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U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe ready to build on 2011's star turn on the field--and online

By Jerry Hinnen | College Football Writer



Megan Rapinoe, I went to the casino / and placed my bets on youuuuu,
the song said, to win the World Cup, because / I think that you deserve to and I think it'd make you happy and the rest of the team tooooo ...

"I thought it was quite clever," Rapinoe tells CBSSports.com, with a bit of a laugh.

And a hell of an omen: "The Megan Rapinoe Song" was posted by user Alex Kreller to YouTube on July 7, 2011--only three days before its inspiration delivered the biggest play of her career, a cross to Abby Wambach for the now-iconic tying goal in the U.S.'s World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil.

Thanks to that cross, and that goal -- inarguably the biggest moment for the U.S. Women's National Team since Brandi Chastain's jersey-doffing celebration at the Rose Bowl in 1999 -- "The Megan Rapinoe Song" turned out to be just the beginning. With the likes of SportsCenter showing the highlight seemingly every hour on the hour, Rapinoe, Wambach, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, and the rest of the USWNT became the nation's biggest female soccer stars since Mia Hamm and Co., virtually overnight.

"Everything changed in that moment--for me, for the whole team." Rapinoe says of the goal. "The reaction was crazy--from there in the stadium all the way back to the states.

"If that doesn't happen, we're on our way home. We don't even make it past the quarterfinals."

Instead, Wambach and Solo are starring in a pair of Gatorade commercials currently in heavy rotation, Morgan is often cited as the U.S.'s next breakout star, and Rapinoe is now the center of a highly devoted band -- or is it "cult"? -- of fans and Internet followers.

There's the Megan Rapinoe Tumblrs. There's the Megan Rapinoe's Hair Twitter accounts (plural), not to mention the one devoted to a Megan Rapinoe lawn gnome alter-ego named "Rapignome" (natch). There's, yes, "The Megan Rapinoe Song." And of course there's Rapinoe's Twitter account itself, home to more than 63,000 followers and as active as any belonging to a USWNT member. And all of that has helped lead to opportunities like Rapinoe's cameo as a cartoon superhero named "Crossfire" in a viral Foot Locker/Nike spot.

In any "cult," the personality of its leader is going to be a major factor in its development, and Rapinoe's -- freewheeling, engaging, spontaneous enough to produce an impromptu Springsteen homage in the middle of a World Cup match -- is no different. The 26-year-old midfielder has embraced social media and the Internet, she says, to make as much of that personality available to her supporters as possible--to "make it more real for the fans," to be a "more interesting person" than they might see from the stands.

But tearing down a wall or two between her fans and herself isn't just about the fun of it, either, Rapinoe says. For female athletes, soccer players, and particularly female soccer players, Rapinoe believes social media present a critical avenue for "growing the sport."

"We're not on TV all the time," she says. "so it's an opportunity. We have to be our own promoters."

Rapinoe admits that that same need to give the women's game the biggest boost possible this summer is both a major source of motivation -- and pressure -- going into London. If 2011 and 2012 have been the best of recent times for the USWNT, they've been some of the worst of times for the sport as a whole, with top-level league Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) struggling and finally ceasing operations for good in mid-May. (With the WPS's future up in the air, Rapinoe signed with the Seattle Sounders Women of the semipro W-League in March.)

Whether it's connecting with potential soccer diehards online or winning them over with a gold medal ceremony in London, Rapinoe says the goal is the same--to make sure the sport doesn't "go back in the dark" during the two-year period between the 2012 games and the 2015 World Cup.

"We have to find a way to stay relevant," she says. "It's hard. Last year we had 8,000 fans in New York City for our (World Cup) send-off match. We don't want that to happen again."

Standing atop the podium in London would be a huge first step. Though coach Pia Sundhage hasn't changed much of the team's components -- forward Sydney Leroux is the only member of the 18-woman Olympic roster not to have also been on the 2011 World Cup roster -- Rapinoe says the team's increasing familiarity with World Cup champions Japan, willingness to improve, and motivation from the "bitter taste" left over from last summer's runner-up finish should have the U.S. right in the running again.

"We're always trying to evolve as a team," she says. "We know how much work we have to do to get there. We know a little more about the way Japan is going to play, having played them a couple of times this year. I think they took a lot of teams by surprise, but we're ready for that this year."

Whatever happens for the U.S., Rapinoe will likely be right in the middle of it. Though mostly used as a substitute at the World Cup and for much of this year to date, Rapinoe started and went the full 90 minutes in the USWNT's most recent outing, a 4-1 friendly win over China*. While hoping to remain in the starting lineup ("Everybody wants to play and play as much as possible," she says), Rapinoe says that after the cross vs. Brazil, she'll be ready no matter how or when Sundhage calls on her.

"(Coming off the bench) was not the way I wanted to start the World Cup," she says, "but that I was able to make that kind of impact in that big a game, it got my confidence back ...

I'm ready to make an impact again."

So attention, YouTube troubadours: you may want to go ahead and get started on this year's Rapinoe tribute right now. However the World Cup may have ended, we wouldn't want to be the ones betting against her -- or her team -- in London.

*If you wanted to measure the impact of the USWNT's World Cup run last summer, you could do worse than compare the attendances for that 2011 send-off match vs. Mexico and the China friendly--the latter of which drew a sellout crowd of 18,573 in Chesterfield, Pa.

Top photo by Getty Images. Photo at right courtesy of U.S. Soccer.

 
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