From boos to captain's armband, Megan Rapinoe is better than ever

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CARY, N.C. -- A crowd showering one of the captains of the U.S. women's national team with affection isn't unusual. In the case of Wednesday evening, U.S. fan group the American Outlaws roared their approval as Megan Rapinoe sat on the turf during a pause in play and bopped her head along as the Outlaws sang The Beatles classic "Twist and Shout" in the second half of a game against Trinidad and Tobago.

It was only strange to think that anyone who is now a U.S. captain ever heard anything but cheers.

A lot can change in two years.

Like the rest of the U.S. team, Rapinoe enjoyed home-field advantage through the first three games of the CONCACAF Women's Championship. She was cheered when she took the field for warmups, cheered again when introduced and when she scored, and cheered still by the fans who stuck around after games to watch her board the team bus.

The United States is arguably the most beloved team in women's sports, and Rapinoe, her interaction with the American Outlaws to wit, might be its most outgoing and entertaining ambassador.

She is also now one of three captains, alongside Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, and wore the armband in the team's first game of World Cup qualifying. Yet almost exactly two years earlier, she was booed loudly when she was introduced wearing the same uniform during games in Columbus, Ohio and Atlanta. Those fans voiced disapproval after she kneeled on the sideline during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination and police violence against African-Americans.

U.S. Soccer took no punitive action toward Rapinoe at the time of her protests, but it effectively admonished her in a public statement and soon issued a new policy requiring athletes to stand.

It all makes for quite a contrast of experiences in the span of 24 months.

"It is kind of crazy," Rapinoe said last week. "I think I'm supported by the top brass at U.S. Soccer, but I do wonder what they think, sort of me standing there with the arm band, representing and leading the team, with sort of the stance they took. I find that interesting.

"But obviously I have the support of the team and support from Jill [Ellis, the U.S. coach]."

Two years on, Rapinoe still has a voice. She will still speak her mind about any subject that matters to her. It's just that with the World Cup around the corner, and the U.S. women's place assured if they win Sunday's CONCACAF semifinal against Jamaica (8 p.m. ET ), some of that takes place on the soccer field.

"I think that what I've seen in Pinoe in meetings and on the pitch is just a willingness to extend herself to her teammates," Ellis said. "Whether it's a comment when we're watching film or out on the field going over to players, really extending herself to help them in decision-making. What I saw in there was a player that could have an influence -- off the field, great personality, fun to be around but also has an intensity about her.

"And she is just instantly credible in terms of the experiences she's been through and her résumé to this point."

She is so fearless and courageous with what she believes in ... it's a great example for younger players.
Rose Lavelle on Megan Rapinoe

The current U.S. roster isn't as young at the moment as some might imagine after two years of retooling, but the youngest cohort is younger than she has been in some time. Mallory Pugh, for example, was 13 when Rapinoe delivered the cross heard round the world against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup. Rose Lavelle was only barely old enough to have a driver's license. Nor are they alone. An important contingent on the team is part of a generation that looked at Rapinoe, now 33, the same way her generation grew up with images of the 1999 World Cup team.

That she could inspire them now makes sense. She already inspired them to get here.

"Pinoe is such a creative player, and that was something I always admired watching her," Lavelle said. "She brought such a different, fun flair to the game. She does that, but it's also effective. It's not for show, she does something with it. So that was always super fun to watch."

But at the time of her protests, there was reason to examine Rapinoe's future with the national team for reasons that had nothing to do with political activism. She had worked hard to make it back to the lineup for the 2016 Olympics after a torn ACL with the national team the previous fall (in playing conditions that led to the cancelation of a subsequent game in Hawaii). But the player on the field as the U.S. women fizzled out in Brazil wasn't the same electric force as in the past.

What wasn't clear was if that was temporary or an international career approaching conclusion.

Amid all of that, the entire team looked caught between generations in the Olympics, unsure who should take charge without Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach around.

So it is striking to find Rapinoe one of the captains, not merely because she is one of the team's senior stateswomen, but because she is again a world-class creative force and arguably better than she has ever been. In answering any questions about the state of her own ability, she empowered herself. And her past résumé carries all the more weight because of her present.

"You see someone like that, and their strengths and everything they're putting out there, it makes me want to do more and do more alongside her," 24-year-old midfielder Lindsey Horan said. "I always thought she had that leadership role, but it's getting stronger and stronger. That's a cool thing because I think she's one of the best players in the world right now, as well."

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In the Oct. 4 CONCACAF opener against Mexico, Megan Rapinoe wore the captain's armband for the first time in her U.S. Soccer career.

The protests never isolated Rapinoe from her team. And while kneeling made her a pariah to some portion of the population, the anger was never universal. There were still cheers even in Columbus and Atlanta. Nor was it remotely close to the first time she spoke loudly by word or action for a cause she believed in. Yet those boos still somehow symbolically brought the curtain down on one part of her career with the national team. The two years that followed answered the question of what comes next.

"I wouldn't say things happen for a reason; I think things just happen," Rapinoe said. "But I did a lot of self-reflecting -- I think I had to. And I came out better for it. I know that I wanted to be more of a leader on this team. I still stand very firmly behind kneeling and what all of that means and the reason that I did it. And I still stand very firmly behind Colin Kaepernick and what he's going through -- and just in general what it was about.

"I think it has become very obvious that I'm a leader on this team and willing to shoulder things for the team and speak up for things and have a capacity off the field to have a lot on my plate."

A lot can change in two years. A lot has changed for Rapinoe to go from boos to the captain's armband.

But it's equally true that she has influence because some things are constant.

"She is so fearless and courageous with what she believes in, and she sticks up regardless of any kind of backlash she might get," Lavelle said. "I think it's a great example for younger players like us who want to use our platform to do the same thing, and also for younger people in general -- for people in general."

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