Chaos theory: Why Megan Rapinoe is in the best form of her life
SEATTLE – “We hate them, and they probably hate us.” It was the role Megan Rapinoe played all week, taking her heightening, antagonistic presence from left flank to microphone.
When you’re playing like Rapinoe is right now, there’s no rivalry banter you can’t back up. Rapinoe had just scored twice to lift the Seattle Reign to a 2-0 victory over the rival Portland Thorns. The U.S. international spent the week stoking the embers of the National Women’s Soccer League’s biggest rivalry.
On Saturday, she forced a mistake and scored off of it late in Saturday’s first half before her sublime second-half finish gave Seattle insurance. Rapinoe was the difference between two relatively even sides.
“To score from there against an unbelievable keeper, it’s got to be a hell of a strike,” Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said of Rapinoe’s second strike. “Until I see it back, I say let’s bring some buckets of water and try to cool off the fire that she’s on right now.”
Saturday wasn’t the only recent game Rapinoe has turned around. Three days earlier, against the visiting Chicago Red Stars, the veteran left winger converted two penalties in a 2-1, come-from-behind victory. Four days before that, with Seattle down a player, Rapinoe’s energy harried FC Kansas City’s defense and allowed the short-handed Reign to maintain its even-strength plan. Her second-half cross, igniting chaos in front of the FCKC goal, helped Seattle equalize and earn a 1-1 result. One week before, a Rapinoe cross was misplayed by the defense in Kansas City, giving her a part in a 2-2 road result.
Pinoe, at the minute, is world-class. Both sides of the ball. Her GPS data is something of a 20-year-old, not a 30 whatever she is. Phenomenal.
In all, Rapinoe has an NWSL-leading nine goals, and while three of those been from the penalty spot, there’s a strange accuracy to her place at the top of the scoring charts. She may not be a true, 18-goal scorer (her current, record-setting pace), but few players in the league are as influential as Rapinoe is in Seattle’s final third.
At 31 years old, Rapinoe is one of the best players in the NWSL, a status few could have foreseen 18 months ago.
“She is beyond anything I could have imagined getting out of her this year,” Reign coach Laura Harvey said. It’s not that Rapinoe was incapable of this form; it’s that this form is coming off of a year-plus of struggle.
Rapinoe suffered the third ACL tear of her career in December 2015. By August 2016, Rapinoe was back with the U.S. women’s national team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, looking far shy of her true self. A cameo with the Reign in September and an appearance in national team camp - but not in games - in November continued Rapinoe’s ups and downs.
Life only returned to normal once NWSL preseason opened in March. From there, the climb has been steady.
Rapinoe showed signs of recapturing her form from the opening game of the season. With the exception of Sky Blue’s Samantha Kerr, who has grasped the mantle of league’s best player (for now), nobody is playing at Rapinoe’s level, heights Harvey marveled at after her team’s win over Portland.
“Pinoe, at the minute, is world-class,” Harvey explained. “Both sides of the ball. Her GPS data is something of a 20-year-old, not a 30 whatever she is. Phenomenal.”
This is the fittest Harvey has ever seen Rapinoe, who turns 32 on July 5. Other younger, less injury-riddled players had rotated in-and-out of Harvey’s lineup in the midst of three games in eight days. Rapinoe, however, went 270 minutes.
As striking as her endurance is Rapinoe’s effort. Particularly in the second Kansas City game, in which Seattle played over 84 minutes with only 10 players, Rapinoe’s intensity on defense was key to maintaining her team’s style. Against Portland, her ability to outrun center back Emily Sonnett late and maintain her composure on an exacting, first-time left-foot finish secured Seattle’s three points.
Rapinoe calls her current shape “the best, and fittest, and strongest that I’ve been.”
“I did a lot more strength work [this offseason],” she explains. “I had the opportunity to, because I wasn’t really playing games, because I wasn’t really with the national team. I think that’s what’s holding me over through these games …
“I’m obviously not the biggest player, or the strongest player. I think having a bigger [fitness] base, especially in a bigger league like this, has really helped.”