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U.S. veteran Megan Rapinoe adjusts to new role at Women's World Cup while savoring final days in spotlight

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Megan Rapinoe is adjusting to her new role at the Women's World Cup , even if it means she's not on the field as much as she'd like to be.
United States' Megan Rapinoe speaks to the media during a FIFA Women's World Cup press conference in Auckland, New Zealand, Sunday, July 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Megan Rapinoe is adjusting to her new role at the Women's World Cup, even if it means she's not on the field as much as she'd like to be.

The outspoken 38-year-old known for her eclectic hair colors and the iconic victory pose she struck at the 2019 World Cup is the oldest player on the team. She already announced that her fourth World Cup would be her last.

“Ultimately, we're at the World Cup. This is where everybody wants to be, whether you're playing 90 minutes, whether you're a game changer, whatever,” she said Sunday. "I think it's a lot similar to what I thought it would be — bringing all the experience that I can, all the experience that I have, and ultimately being ready whenever my number is called up."

Rapinoe has played limited minutes so far, coming in as a substitute in the 3-0 victory over Vietnam in the tournament opener, which was her 200th career appearance for the team.

She was available but didn't play in the disappointing 1-1 draw with the Netherlands on Thursday in Wellington. U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski made just one substitution in the match, bringing in midfielder Rose Lavelle after the first half.

“I think all of us on the bench, it's like we think we should be on the field as much as the players on the field believe that they should be on the field,” Rapinoe said. “Every player on the field that starts the game thinks that they should play 90 minutes, and every player who doesn't, who is a sub, thinks that they should be on at some point."

The United States has won the last two World Cups, but the players find themselves in a more precarious position as they chase an unprecedented third consecutive title. The Americans need at least a draw going into the final group match against Portugal on Tuesday at Eden Park in Auckland.

The Americans top Group E, even on points with the Netherlands, but hold the edge because of goal difference. Portugal, which beat Vietnam, could send the United States home early with a win over the Americans.

“We're unsatisfied with the way we played, but we know there are areas that we can be better and I think there's some really simple fixes we can do to put ourselves in a better position to have more joy on the ball, especially in the final third,” Rapinoe said. “I think everybody's looking at this like `Let's go.'”

At the 2019 World Cup in France, Rapinoe scored six goals over the course of the tournament, including a penalty in a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final. She also finished with three assists and claimed both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball for the best overall player.

Rapinoe, who is engaged to former WNBA star Sue Bird, has been a leader on and off the field.

She made headlines during the 2019 tournament when she said she wouldn't visit the White House if the United States won. Her decision was based on her disdain for then-President Donald Trump, and the team did not go to the White House after winning its second World Cup.

And in the midst of a dispute with U.S. Soccer over equal pay with the men's national team, Rapinoe helped the women hold firm on their position.

“I just think back to 2019 in particular. We didn’t really talk about it a lot as a group but we were like, `Well, we have to win. This is kind of like a must-win World Cup for us.' And I think it did give us confidence," she said. "It pressured us, but I think we also knew that we could handle it and it was almost a mandatory upping of our level to be able to match everything that we were saying off the field. I think in so many ways we were betting on ourselves.”

Rapinoe has won two Women’s World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal with the United States. She also took home the Ballon d’Or and the Best FIFA Women’s Player awards — the game’s top individual honors — for her play in 2019.

As a fierce advocate for social justice issues, including gender equity and LGBTQ rights, she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Joe Biden last year.

The team also won a new contract that pays the players the same as their male counterparts.

“I’ve always tried to use whatever platform we have, and this platform was built long before I got here. We just continue to add to to it, to grow the game, to make the world a better place, to use our voices, to advocate for more,” she said.

At this World Cup, she's passing that legacy on to younger generation. Fourteen of the U.S. players are playing in their first World Cup. In 2019, Carli Lloyd was in a similar role of a player who was also something of a coach who led by example.

Rapinoe is doing that now.

“Still every day in training I'm like, `I'm gonna try to bust your ass,' and that makes them better, that makes me better," she said. "That makes the whole team better. So I think it's been really rewarding. And I think ultimately, and I think that this gets lost, but I get to play in another World Cup."


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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press