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Megan Rapinoe makes a good U.S. soccer team look even better

Megan Rapinoe makes a good U.S. soccer team look even better
Amy Rodriguez (8) celebrates her goal with teammates Tobin Heath (17) and and Megan Rapinoe during a game Thursday against Mexico at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester, New York. The U.S. beat Mexico, 4-0.

Megan Rapinoe is a team player — which is a good thing to be when you consider the team she plays for.

The U.S. women's soccer squad, which enters World Cup qualifying next month, isn't so much a collection of players as it is a constellation of stars. Forward Abby Wambach has scored more international goals than any player in history, male or female. On the back line, defender and captain Christie Rampone has played in more international games than all but one player, and behind her, Hope Solo has more wins and more shutouts than any active goalkeeper in the world.

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Yet none of those stars would shine as bright without the 29-year-old Rapinoe, whose precision passes have set up some of Wambach's most memorable goals and whose work breaking down opposing attacks has helped preserve some of Solo's clean sheets. And if much of that work has gone unappreciated outside the U.S. team's dressing room, that's all right with Rapinoe.

"Listen, if I could score all the goals the way that they could, then I definitely would be doing that," said Rapinoe, a high-energy, attacking midfielder in the David Beckham mold. "But that's not my bread and butter. I'm better playing in the midfield and being more of a playmaker.

"Overall, it's are we winning games, are we winning championships, are we qualifying for the major championships? That's the most important thing to everyone. So yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that."

And there's a lot to be proud of. The U.S. has lost just seven of the 87 games Rapinoe has played in since her debut with the national team in 2006. And with two dominant wins (by a combined 12-0 score) in friendlies over Mexico in the last eight days, the Americans ran their unbeaten streak to nine games heading into October's World Cup qualifying tournament.

The Cup qualifying event, which will be played entirely in the U.S. between Oct. 15 and Oct. 26, will feature eight teams divided into two groups of four countries each.

The U.S., ranked No. 1 in the world for the last seven years, will open group play in Kansas City against Trinidad and Tobago, followed by games in suburban Chicago against Guatemala, and in Washington, D.C., against Haiti — teams they have outscored 99-2 in 12 previous matches, all wins. With the top two teams from group play advancing to the Oct. 24 semifinals outside Philadelphia, where a win guarantees an invitation to next summer's World Cup in Canada, it's probably safe for the U.S. to start planning for the world championships, a tournament it hasn't won since 1999.

But having gone through one World Cup, Rapinoe said that whatever team the U.S. plays right now isn't nearly as important as how it plays.

"Our preparation is starting, and we're constantly evolving," she said. "Everyone's kind of ready and raring to go. For us it's about our performances. We want to put good performances together. And we feel like if we do that, then the results will come."

Speaking of results, the U.S. would not have reached the final in the last World Cup if not for a long left-footed cross from Rapinoe that found Wambach at the far post in the closing seconds of overtime. It was a soccer version of a Hail Mary, but it led to the tying score against Brazil in the quarterfinals, forcing a penalty-kick shootout the Americans won.

The U.S. lost another penalty-kick shootout against Japan in the final, to place second. But Rapinoe finished the tournament with a goal and a team-leading three assists despite starting just two games.

And she was even better in the 2012 Olympics, scoring the go-ahead goal against Colombia in group play, two game-tying goals in an overtime victory versus Canada in the semifinals, then adding an assist on what proved to be the game-winner in the final against Japan. She finished that six-game tournament with three goals and a team-leading four assists, helping the U.S. to its third consecutive gold medal.

"She's a big performer in big moments. She's very, very good in the pressure cooker," U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. "She scores goals, she can create goals. She's pretty versatile.

"We all certainly know her value and what she brings to the team."

Yet Rapinoe has arguably played an even bigger role off the field. When she came out as a lesbian before the London Games, Rapinoe became one of just three openly gay athletes among the 530 members of the U.S. Olympic team.

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"Megan absolutely changed the environment," said Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, who credits Rapinoe for making it safer for other gay athletes, such as football player Michael Sam, Galaxy soccer defender Robbie Rogers and basketball's Jason Collins and Brittney Griner, to come out as well.

Predictably, Rapinoe deflects the credit elsewhere, saying she's just happy to get an assist.

"There's definitely a culture shift," she said. "So I definitely don't say I started something. But I'm very proud to be a part of it.

"There's so many people that have come up to me [saying] that I've either inspired them to come out or inspired them to just feel comfortable in their own skin. That I'm the reason that they told their parents or I'm the reason that they feel they can live sort of out and openly. And that means more to me than anything that I've done soccer-wise."

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