‘I’m still gonna bust your ass’: Rapinoe happy with bench role at final World Cup

At the age of 38, Megan Rapinoe was never going to be a starter at this World Cup, and that is fine with her. The objective, she said on Sunday, is winning an unprecedented third straight title for the US.

“When the time is right and the situation in the game is right, then I’ll be ready,” she said two days before her team’s decisive Group E match against Portugal in Auckland.

Rapinoe played the final 27 minutes of USA’s opener, a 3-0 victory over Vietnam, but did not feature in the next match, against the Netherlands. Rose Lavelle was the only substitute used by USA manager Vlatko Andonovski in the 1-1 draw against the Dutch on Thursday in Wellington. Andonovski’s lack of substitutions in that game, particularly given USA’s struggles so far to dominate opponents at this World Cup, drew widespread criticism.

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Andonovski said after the match that he felt his team had found their rhythm after scoring the equalizer in the 62nd minute, and he did not want a substitute to disrupt that. Three days later, his decision – and his explanation – still hung over conversations about the team’s mediocre start to the tournament. Rapinoe, competing in her fourth and final World Cup, didn’t show any concern on Sunday as she held court with a group of several dozen journalists.

“Every player on the field that starts the game thinks that they should play 90 minutes and everyone who doesn’t, who’s a sub, thinks that they should be on at some point,” she said.

Rapinoe spoke about how she and fellow veteran Kelley O’Hara are providing leadership from the bench by sharing their thoughts with their teammates at half-time. Rapinoe said she is following players such as Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone, who had limited but important roles in their final World Cups.

“For me, and I think for those players, too, you can still play at an extremely high level,” Rapinoe said. “You can still keep a really high standard, you can still have a lot to offer both on the field and off the field. Maybe you’re not going to be a starter or playing 90 minutes in the bulk of the games, but sometimes the bench players, that’s not what you need; you need the 20 minutes in two games that wins the team the tournament or gets the team to the next round.”

Accepting a role on the bench does not mean Rapinoe trains with any less intensity. “Still, every day in training I’m like, ‘I’m gonna bust your ass,’” she said.

Rapinoe said the US had a lack of width in the draw with the Dutch, a problem she could have resolved with her skills on the wing. Lindsey Horan’s equalizer salvaged a point for the Americans after they gave up their first goal in group play since the opening match of the 2015 tournament. It was also the first time they had trailed in a World Cup game since 2011.

The result sets up a tricky group finale for the Americans, who lead the group over the Dutch by virtue of their superior goal difference. The US only need a draw against Portugal to qualify for the knockout stages but the Netherlands will fancy their chances of inflicting a heavy defeat on Vietnam and topping the group. The group winner will most likely have an easier path to the final, and avoid the in-form Swedes.

Thrashing a disciplined Portugal side could be a tall order for the Americans, who have lacked precision in the final third at this tournament. The world is still waiting for the two-time defending champions to show their best selves. Rapinoe & Co are waiting, too. She says the team is “unsatisfied” thus far and looking to improve, but they aren’t worrying unduly.

“I don’t think this is anything that anyone was necessarily worried about,” Rapinoe said. “I think we knew that we were going to have to build into the tournament and just understand that’s where we are. For me, I’m excited that [we] have a must-perform, must-win type of game. It’s a pressure moment and that’s what the tournament is now. Every single game from here on out is that pressure moment and that’s the best part of being at a World Cup.”

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