Women's World Cup, Megan Rapinoe
(Getty Images)

USA's "quirky" Rapinoe has Portland connections

The U.S. National Women’s Team finds themselves in their first Women’s World Cup Final since the legendary 1999 run after a definitive 3-1 victory against France on Wednesday. They came into today’s semifinal riding high from their dramatic and last-gasp win against Brazil on Sunday.

The path here has had many twists and turns, not the least of which was scoring the latest goal in World Cup history—men’s or women’s—in the quarterfinal match against Brazil. Abby Wambach headed home a goal that will go down in U.S. Soccer history as one of the most important ever and the teammate that fed her that ball was midfielder and former University of Portland Pilot Megan Rapinoe.

The skill and character of Rapinoe is something that Portland Timbers intern and current University of Portland Pilots women’s team defender Emma Nelson knows first-hand. Working in the Timbers' Stand Together Community Outreach department, Nelson is a business major currently entering her senior season at UP but overlapped with Rapinoe when she was a freshman and Megan a 5th year senior.

The summer prior to her freshman year, Nelson traveled to Portland early to begin captain’s practices and prepare for the season. Invited to join the team by head coach Garrett Smith on the recommendation of her club coach, Nelson was nervous about leaving home and coming back from ACL and stress fracture injuries in high school.

“I felt I had cheated myself out of seeing how good I could be by not playing for three years in high school,” said Nelson. “I felt I owed it to myself to see what I could do.”

Enter Megan Rapinoe.

“When I came down before my freshman year, I stayed with her. I lived with her and [her sister and fellow UP player] Rachel. It was just me and the two of them,” said Nelson. “They made it so much easier for me.”

Rapinoe was the captain at UP then and quickly made an impression on Nelson—an impression that stays with her to this day.

“She is literally the coolest person I've ever met. She’s quirky and weird but you are so drawn to her. She has a very magnetic personality,” said Nelson.

While Rapinoe was friendly, she was also fiercely competitive. Game or practice, it did not matter.

“She’ll tackle you,” said Nelson emphatically. “She practices the way that you play in a game. She’s really intense.”

But it isn't all intensity for Rapinoe; she clearly has a charisma that comes through as well. Witness her singing "Born In The U.S.A." into the broadcast sideline microphone after scoring in group play against Colombia.

"She has that side of her too," said Nelson. "You can have fun, but you work hard. People play soccer because they enjoy the game. It’s so clear that that’s why she does it. She loves it and it reminds you why you’re there." 

That mixture of intensity, skill, and love for soccer in Rapinoe made for a potent combination and one that also made for a clear leader amongst her teammates.

“You just wanted to make her proud and you wanted to work for her because you knew that she was working for you,” remembered Nelson. “You were like, ‘I want to be like Megan. I want to work that hard too.’ That’s one thing I definitely learned from her: work ethic.”

The torch now having been passed to Nelson at UP, she and her current Pilot teammates gather at her house to watch the World Cup matches. They were ecstatic for the role Rapinoe played in the historic goal against Brazil.

“The way that she can strike a ball is very amazing to me," said Nelson. "[That] assist was just on a dime. Perfect.”

There are other Pilots alumni that Nelson and her teammates have been watching and rooting for in this tournament too. On the U.S. team, defender Stephanie Cox played at UP but didn’t quite overlap with Nelson, but Canada’s Sophie Schmidt did having just graduated last season. Canadian captain Christine Sinclair is no stranger to UP either.

“Christine will come back and practice with us which is amazing and I’m starstruck the whole time. We were all sort of rooting for Canada too,” said Nelson. “We were really disappointed to see [them] have such an early exit.”

Given the run the U.S. team has had in this World Cup, Nelson sees a potential turning point and passing of a new torch for the growth of women’s soccer in the United States.

“The fact that who we have doing the broadcast is Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, they bring in Mia Hamm, they talk to Briana Scurry. Those are the people that everyone knows still and that was eleven years ago,” said Nelson. “But I think that the allure of that team was not only their win but they seemed to have personalities. I think that we’re getting that with this [current] team.”

"Especially Megs. People are really connecting with her.”

This being Nelson's senior season, she knows that time is short and expectations high for a national championship on the bluff. For now, though, she continues her summer training and is happy to cheer on her friends on the U.S. team, confident that they can win on Sunday.

“I know [the USA] definitely have the talent and sometimes it takes a little bit of luck,” said Nelson. “They’ve definitely proven . . . that they can make their own luck if need be.”