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By Paul Danzer/Portland Tribune/World Cup star, focusing on equality, says Pilots prepared her for something bigger

Even as she dreamed of soccer success while at the University of Portland, Megan Rapinoe's imagination couldn't match the thrill of helping the United States win consecutive World Cup championships or the whirlwind of craziness that followed the July 7 finals triumph over the Netherlands.

"I did not expect any of this," Rapinoe said during a July 24 news conference in Tacoma, Washington, where she plays for Reign FC of the National Women's Soccer League. "But I guess it's always the goal to do as well and be as big and shine the biggest spotlight on your sport as you possibly can."

Rapinoe, 34, has experienced the bright light of fame since scoring the go-ahead goal and winning both the Golden Ball as the World Cup's best player and the Golden Boot as the goals leader (six).

The attention has only intensified as Rapinoe has used her notoriety to speak about equality for female athletes and other social and political issues. Upon the team's return from this year's win in France, Rapinoe seemed to be everywhere on national TV shows.

While many of her teammates— including four members of the Portland Thorns — returned to their NWSL clubs shortly after the post-Cup celebrations, Rapinoe didn't return to the Reign until last week and didn't play on Sunday in her club's home match against Chicago.

"I feel terrible," she said during her first Puget Sound media appearance since the World Cup.

Chicago beat Reign FC 4-0 in Tacoma. Before the match, though, she held a press conference with Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in support for their Paycheck Fairness Act legislation.

Rapinoe expressed surprise that so many of her national teammates already were playing in NWSL games. She said she was still feeling the physical effects of the World Cup games and wasn't ready to refocus on playing for the Reign.

"It's probably best for everybody I take more time," she said.

Rapinoe has never shied from controversy. She declared before the World Cup she would not visit the White House, if invited. That statement again made waves during the World Cup.

Rapinoe's decision to kneel during the national anthem led the U.S. Soccer Federation to mandate that players on its national teams stand for the anthem.

Rapinoe's voice has been at the forefront of the push for compensation fairness for the U.S. women's national team. She is one of five plaintiffs who issued statements when the national team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal compensation — a lawsuit being mediated.

Sitting at a Cheney Stadium podium and talking about the challenges ahead for women's soccer, or discussing life as a gay athlete on national television were not scenarios Rapinoe envisioned while attending UP from 2005 through 2008. 

In hindsight, though, Rapinoe says her time with the Pilots helped prepare her for a mission like the one just completed.

"Something really big that I learned, even sort of unconsciously, while at UP, was understanding what it means to be a main thing in a community and have it mean so much more to people than just what's happening on the field," she said. "That was always the sense at UP. It felt like a family there. With all the fans, it felt like there was something bigger than just soccer going on there."

She missed that sense of community when she became a soccer professional. thinking, "Well, this isn't even close as good an atmosphere as I had in college. And just realizing how special that is."

This year's World Cup took that sense of community to a new level for Rapinoe.

"To play in a final where people are chanting 'Equal pay,' and understanding when we got back what the climate was culturally, and how much bigger it was than just a sport … I think I was learning at an early age back (at UP) what it meant to play for something more than just what's happening on the field," she said.

Whether it was President Donald Trump's disparaging tweets, criticism about scoring 13 goals versus Thailand or how the team celebrates, Rapinoe said she and her teammates were unfazed by the media swirl.

"We are very aware and proud of the place that we have socially," she said. "We do things the right way. We're respectful. We play the game the right way. We respect other teams. We respect ourselves. We respect the game," she said. "So when criticism comes about celebrations or this or that or whatever it may be on the field and off, we're unfazed by it because we know that it's sort of just noise. We know exactly who we are as people and as a team and we're comfortable with the space we are (in)."

Rapinoe said a big part of this 2019 team's legacy is the way players supported one another through the process of chasing a World Cup.

"It was a really difficult cycle and a very emotionally challenging, psychologically challenging cycle for a lot of different reasons," she said. "To be able to do what we did and to have the impact that we've had off the field, I think everyone will look at (their teammates) with a sense of pride and happiness and this intimate bond that no one can really touch. It's quite a special thing."

But Rapinoe doesn't see promoting the sport and the NWSL as a battle for the national team members.

"It's time that everyone else steps up," she said. "We've done pretty much everything that we could possibly do on and off the field to fight for our cause, to prove 200 million times over how much we're worth it," Rapinoe said. "We're getting a little frustrated and done with being the group that is discriminated against and having to shoulder all of the burden to try to explain to people why we're worth it. It's time that everyone else dives into the conversation."

Sitting next to Rapinoe at the Tacoma news conference, her U.S. and Reign teammate (and former Thorns midfielder) Allie Long said it's time the NWSL be viewed as a league with a bright future, one worth investing in. Long said she has interacted with fans who don't know the NWSL exists.

"That should never happen. We need to be marketed better," Long said. "Of course, we need people in the stands, but we need more corporate sponsorship pouring into the game and believing in something that can be really, really big one day."

As four-time world champions, the U.S. national team is big today.

But the seven European teams that joined the United States in the quarterfinals in France demonstrated that the gap between the champions and the contenders is shrinking.

One difference between the systems in America and Europe is that teenage players in Europe compete in professional environments while the American system has age-defined youth competitions followed by college soccer. 

"Part of the reason why younger players get so many more chances overseas is because they have club teams that they play with, and are introduced into the first team much sooner," Rapinoe said. "But you also see there's not very many older people. People retire much earlier overseas than they do here.

"So we have sort of the opposite (in the USA), where once you get to the national team the investment's there. That's when you start making money. So you get players being able to make this their whole career for the duration that their body allows them to, not just their finances."

From the perspective as a 34-year-old, Rapinoe sees the challenge for the United States as developing the next generation of players without pushing aside veterans such as herself.

"A lot of times a player's first introduction into the full (U.S. women's national) team is after they've graduated college, which really puts them at a huge disadvantage because it's a pretty big learning curve going from playing college to playing at the full international level," she said. "So I would like to see some of the younger players integrated a little bit more, but it's difficult when you have players who are 34 still playing some of the best soccer."

Rapinoe will be 35 by the time the Olympic soccer tournament is played next summer in Japan. She recently signed a deal to write a book due out in the fall of 2020. But her busy life won't take her away from soccer, yet. She plans to do her part to chase a gold medal.

"Not looking forward to the grind, ever," she said with a laugh. "But we'll do it."

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