Kneels for equality, stands for victory.
Just as she can envision a pocket of space opening up on the field before it actually does, Megan Rapinoe didn’t need me to finish my question about winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
“So are you looking forward to visiting the White—” is as far as I got before Rapinoe slid in to tackle the answer with the kind of spiky assurance that has always defined her play. “No fuckin’ way will we be invited to the White House,” she says. “[Trump] tries to avoid inviting a team that might decline. Or, like he did when the Warriors turned him down, he’ll claim they hadn’t been invited in the first place.”
Is the co-captain speaking for the whole team here? Rapinoe pauses, long enough for her mouth to curl into an impish grin. “I don’t know everyone’s voting patterns on our team,” she says, chortling, “but I would hope no one voted for him.”
The exchange is vintage Rapinoe—blunt and fearless. Ever since the 33-year-old midfielder with the peroxide pixie electrified soccer fans at the 2011 World Cup, Pinoe (as her teammates call her) has always operated outside the box, both literally and figuratively.
Who will ever forget her 45-yard cross-field bomb onto the spring-loaded head of Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute against Brazil, saving the U.S. women from a humiliating quarterfinal exit? Or what she did after scoring against Columbia—sprinting to a corner of the field, snatching a microphone from the sideline, and raucously launching into Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”?
Five years later, Rapinoe would be singled out for her performance of another All-American anthem. She took a pregame knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” thus becoming the first white professional athlete to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. True to form, the U.S. left winger—funny how position and politics can sometimes converge—remained steadfast in her commitment despite jeers from the crowd, disapproving comments from fellow co-captain Carli Lloyd, and a huffy spanking by U.S. Soccer grandees. And then, of course, there was the social media drone strike by the MAGA hordes when the word came down from Mar-a-Lago: Taking a knee was tantamount to “disrespecting our heritage.”
Not surprisingly, Rapinoe was underwhelmed by Trump’s sentiments. “They’re disgusting,” she told the BBC, “and un-American.”
Rapinoe has long used her national team perch to fight for more than just 50-50 balls. She and her partner, women’s basketball legend Sue Bird, made history by posing sleekly (also, nakedly) for the cover of ESPN’s 2018 Body Issue. Rapinoe has called the testosterone-heavy FIFA hierarchy “old, male, and stale” and helped spearhead the USWNT’s groundbreaking lawsuit against U.S. Soccer for years of “institutionalized gender discrimination.”
This is not to suggest that Rapinoe is some earnest activist who travels with a portable soapbox, moralizing her way around the country. She frequently posts goofy selfies on Instagram; her teammates love to talk about the antic shimmying she’ll suddenly break into during practice to keep things light. And there are few elite soccer players, male or female, who radiate the sense of fun and joy that Rapinoe does on the field.
A couple of days before I interviewed her, I watched the U.S. women’s match against World Cup debutante Spain in which the top-ranked Americans played with the grim determination of a team hoping to make a statement after a deflating loss to No. 3 France earlier in the week.
And yet there was Rapinoe, puckishly reaching into her grab bag of tricks to pull out a nutmeg here, a back heel there, and eventually launching herself into the air for an acrobatic bicycle kick that missed but not by much.
“I was just channeling Tobin,” she grinned. Her fellow winger, Tobin Heath, is the resident ball wizard of the U.S. women. On a team perhaps overly reliant on a direct, physical approach, it’s the two free-spirited entertainers, Rapinoe and Heath, who provide the moments of improvisational magic that keep defenses off-balance.
“Nobody knows what I’m doing—myself included,” Rapinoe says of her style of play. “And if I don’t know what I’m doing, the defender isn’t going to know either.”
That element of unpredictability has defined Rapinoe’s career ever since she made her national team debut in 2006 after leading University of Portland to the NCAA title as a freshman.
“Growing up, I was never the best athlete or the fastest or the strongest—so I had to affect the game in a different way,” she says. “Even if you’re extremely athletic and fast, if you’re doing the same thing over and over, the defense is going to figure it out. Really, it’s all about playing cat-and-mouse with the defender so I try to change it up … and put myself in a position where I have options.”
Rapinoe’s nonchalance on the ball may fool many of the best defenders in the world, but underneath her Tilda Swinton do resides a big, pulsing soccer brain that is constantly figuring out the calculus of play around her. Whether she’s Arjen Robben-ing her way infield from the left flank with her favored right foot, surging to the byline to launch one of her inch-perfect crosses, or sending a 20-yard half-volley screaming into the net, she is an agent of chaos in attack. And as much as Rapinoe misses Wambach’s formidable forehead on set pieces, she has developed an almost telepathic understanding with Alex Morgan, who finished off seven of her team-leading 12 assists last year. Add the seven goals she scored herself and it’s easy to see why Rapinoe is so vital to the team’s quest in France.
“Pinoe just gets after it,” says wing back Crystal Dunn, who links up with Rapinoe on the left flank. “And she expects us to do the same.”
Rapinoe personifies the competitive zeal that has underpinned the U.S. women’s success ever since Michelle Akers and April Heinrichs blazed the path to World Cup glory in 1991. “We have a great burden of expectation, and it brings out the best in us,” says Rapinoe. “We just expect to win every game, even when we’re down two-nil with 10 minutes left.”
It’s that refusal to countenance defeat that Barack Obama hailed when he called the U.S. women “badasses” after they brought home the trophy in 2015.
“It takes a high level of self-belief and determination because there’s always going to be bumps in the road,” Rapinoe says when asked to describe the essence of the team’s badassery.
“No matter how good you are, there’ll be injuries or a bad patch of form. The key is how you recover from those setbacks, how you get up after being knocked down, how you fight for every ball. It’s about that killer instinct, to want the ball when the game’s on the line—and people aren’t just born that way. You’ve got to work really fuckin’ hard at it.”
The U.S. women are prepared to do whatever it takes to beat back the studs-up challenges to their supremacy that await them in France. “If you’re going to stand in our way,” she says, sending out a warning to the rest of the world, “then we’ll just go through you.”
Megan Rapinoe already knows where she and her teammates will be standing after the World Cup final. Spoiler alert: It won’t be in the White House.