Megan Rapinoe goes after the ball at the CONCACAF Women's Championship on Oct. 4, 2018 in Cary, N.C.
CARY, N.C. — Megan Rapinoe wore a new accessory on her right arm Thursday night, though it wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit.
U.S. women’s soccer coach Jill Ellis decided to give Rapinoe the honor of wearing the captain’s armband for the team’s opening match of the 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship against Mexico.
Though Rapinoe has remained one of the faces of American soccer while gracing magazine covers and emerging as a vocal advocate for various social issues, her only other time serving as the team captain came as part of a tribute to her during a 2015 friendly.
So how did it feel for the two-time Olympian to wear the captain’s armband against Mexico, knowing that it was a sign that she has emerged as a veteran leader on an American team that has undergone some major changes?
“(It was) a little tight, actually,” Rapinoe said, smiling before her tone became more serious. “Obviously it’s a great honor to have that and to know that I have the backing of the staff and most importantly my teammates.
“Hopefully I can do them proud and be a good leader. I’m definitely one of many leaders on this team, though.”
Rapinoe helped answer any questions about this team’s focus with a pair of goals that propelled the Americans to a 6-0 win over Mexico at Sahlen’s Stadium. The Americans can qualify for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France by finishing among the top three in the tournament, which runs through Oct. 17.
The U.S. team nearly missed qualifying for the 2011 Women’s World Cup after it lost to Mexico in the Concacaf semifinals and finished third, as only two Concacaf teams earned automatic bids at the time.
However, with Rapinoe’s first goal in the third minute of Thursday’s match, the Americans showed they weren’t about to again overlook Mexico. The defending World Cup champs scored five goals after intermission to make their quest to qualify for the 2019 World Cup much easier.
The U.S. will next face Panama at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday in another match in which it will arrive as overwhelming favorite.
“As an older player, you just know things that younger players don’t,” Rapinoe said. “You’ve been through more. You’ve been through different situations.”
In years past, the Americans had proven stars in Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd to compliment Rapinoe and take some pressure off the forward with the iconic bleach-blond hair.
Wambach and Solo are gone, though, and Lloyd at age 36 has taken on a smaller role, leaving Rapinoe and Alex Morgan to serve as key offensive-minded veterans on a team in which half the roster had never played in a World Cup qualifier before Thursday.
“We were so prepared that I don’t think going into it we had a lot of questions in terms of what we could potentially deal with and how we could handle it,” Ellis said.
At 33, Rapinoe has seen enough that she’s now able to laugh about the close call the Americans experienced following their stunning loss to Mexico in 2010. As the story goes, the U.S. ended up qualifying for that tournament by beating Italy in a home-and-home playoff, and then the U.S. recaptured its magic in making a run to the final.
The iconic play during that World Cup came when Rapinoe sent a perfect, 45-yard cross to Wambach for the game-tying goal against Brazil as extra time was about to expire in the quarterfinals, a game the U.S. then won in a shootout.
Of course, with the loss to Mexico, all of that 2011 success came very close to never happening.
Like a wise, older player, Rapinoe shared stories about the experience with her younger teammates.
“We were kind of telling hilarious stories about 2010 and our long road to qualification and just sort of what that was like,” Rapinoe said.
The forward wasted little time scoring her first goal Thursday, beating Mexican goalkeeper Bianca Henninger on a shot from close range that sailed into the right corner of the net.
Rapinoe celebrated by shaking her shoulders while doing an odd-looking dance move. Morgan did the same dance after scoring the first of her two goals on a header in the 57th minute.
Turns out, Rapinoe and Morgan got the idea for the celebration from the “FIFA 19” soccer video game.
“Actually the Orlando Pride tweeted the celebration, I guess, of me in FIFA doing that,” said Morgan, who plays professionally for the Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League. “So we just thought we’re always up for a good little celebration, so (we) kind of took it from FIFA.”
Rapinoe tapped in her second goal in the 70th minute for her 40th international goal.
She admitted afterward that her leadership style isn’t to puff out her chest and demand respect. She instead would rather do her part on the field and pass along knowledge by sharing stories of her own experiences.
“You just try to bring those little things to different players at different times,” Rapinoe said. “Obviously, everyone has a different way of doing that but trying not to be like ‘Hey, I’m a veteran. Listen to me.’”
As Rapinoe put it, the U.S. team is so talented despite its youth that the veterans sometimes “need to get out of the way a little bit.”