At the 2011 World Cup, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe were the United States' two star attacking subs. Now, they're the team's best players.
Alex Morgan scored the latest goal in men's or women's Olympic soccer history on Monday, punching in the winner for the United States in the 122nd minute. In heartbreaking fashion, on a day when one of the greatest players of all time put in the performance of her life for her country, the Canadians were dumped out of the tournament.
Christine Sinclair's hat trick wasn't enough to overcome Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, as well as some questionable officiating, in a 4-3 USWNT victory. The officials -- who were admittedly poor -- became the biggest story of the match. Unfortunately, they overshadowed a game that should have been about the spectacular performances of the players on the pitch.
Rapinoe and Morgan aren't exactly strangers to playing hero. Rapinoe hit the cross that Abby Wambach headed in to equalize against Brazil at the World Cup, while Morgan scored a game-clinching goal in the semifinal against France. Morgan also scored the United States' opening goal against Japan in the final. However, in all of those instances, Rapinoe and Morgan came off the bench before providing their heroics.
Pia Sundhage's decision to drop Amy Rodriguez to the bench in favor of Morgan post-World Cup should have been an easy one, even if it wasn't arrived at swiftly, and one that looked inevitable even before Morgan's World Cup performances. Fitting in Rapinoe, however, has required some reorganization of the midfield on the part of Sundhage.
Lauren Cheney, who started her career as a striker, moved to left midfield for the World Cup. She moved back to forward to accommodate Rapinoe, but has since moved into the center of midfield due to Shannon Boxx's age and injuries, as well as Carli Lloyd's lack of form (that she has since rectified) in the build-up to the Olympics. With Cheney in the center of the pitch, there's a spot out wide open for Rapinoe, leaving Heather O'Reilly and Tobin Heath to fight for a starting place like Rapinoe once had to do.
While it might be obvious to fans who just started following the team during the World Cup that Rapinoe should be in the first XI, that wasn't always the case. Rapinoe is now 27 years old and has just 57 senior caps, a low number in the women's game for a player of her current quality. For comparison's sake, O'Reilly is also 27 and has been capped 166 times by the United States national team. Elite players like O'Reilly, Morgan, Heath and Sydney Leroux are usually recognized while they're in high school and brought into the senior team while still in college.
Rapinoe was capped in college, but injuries kept her from cementing a spot with the senior team, as well as the great form of the now out of favor Lori Chalupny. The last time Chalupny represented the United States was back in 2009 and the team has refused to select her for the team since due to her history of concussions, even though she has been cleared to play professional club soccer.
Leslie Osborne's national team career has been sidetracked under similar circumstances. Once one of the most promising midfielders in the country, Osborne was first capped in 2004 while still in college. The 29-year-old has played 61 times for her country, but a series of injuries has kept her out of the national team setup as well. She tore her ACL just before the 2008 Olympics and has suffered other, though less serious, injuries since. Like Chalupny, she got healthy enough to play club football again but has been unable to break back into the national team setup.
For those unfamiliar with the United States women's national team's exploits between the 2008 Olympics and the 2011 World Cup, the best American sports parallel is probably the injury to Drew Bledsoe that allowed Tom Brady to take over as the quarterback of the New England Patriots. Brady is now universally regarded as one of the best players of his generation, but there's a good chance that he never would have gotten a shot as a starting quarterback if Bledsoe hadn't gotten hurt.
These were the unfortunate circumstances under which Rapinoe went from being a very solid, but still mostly fringe national team player to being a first team regular. It's terrible that injuries have sidetracked the careers of two fantastic players, but Rapinoe's performances over the last two years hold up against any American midfielder ever. She's emerged as one of the best players in the world, and while it's very sad that injuries to other players are what it took for her to get a consistent run in the first team, the USWNT is now better for having Rapinoe as a first team regular.
Still, those injuries didn't guarantee Rapinoe a place in the starting XI. Cheney was in spectacular form coming into the World Cup, and she needed to be fit in to the team wherever possible. With Sundhage still committed to Amy Rodriguez up top and Cheney untested in the center of midfield, Rapinoe was the lineup's casualty.
A bit of a discovery was made in the semifinals of the World Cup. In the United States' 3-1 win over France, Lloyd exited in the 65th minute for Rapinoe, a switch that moved Cheney to the center of midfield alongside Boxx. The last 25 minutes of the game were among her best in the entire tournament, and it wouldn't be surprising if that was the game that made Sundhage realize that Rapinoe, Cheney and Boxx can all fit into the same midfield.
Rapinoe's run-up to the World Cup was excellent, but even in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, she still hadn't established herself as a clear first choice player. At that time, Cheney was still playing on the left or up top, while Heath and O'Reilly appeared to be ahead of Rapinoe in the pecking order. At this point, Morgan wasn't an automatic starter either, with Cheney and Rodriguez still getting games next to Wambach.
Things finally changed in June, when Sundhage used Cheney in midfield, Rapinoe on the wing and Morgan up top next to Wambach for two games in three days. They defeated Sweden 3-1 on June 16, then the team that they will face in the Olympics final, Japan, 4-1 on June 18. She stuck with that setup in the United States' sendoff game against Canada, a 2-1 win just before the Olympics.
Morgan and Rapinoe have been two of the best players in the tournament throughout the Olympics, but they brought their best when their team needed them most in the semifinal. Rapinoe's two goals and Morgan's miracle winner guided the United States past Canada. They're both absolutely undroppable and have become just as crucial to the team as Wambach and Cheney.
Their status as two of the world's best attacking players was nearly cemented at the World Cup, but incredibly, it took Sundhage until just over a month before the Olympics and only three games before the tournament to figure out how to fit Rapinoe, Morgan, Wambach and Cheney into the same team. It's not as if they emerged from their roles as super subs shortly after the World Cup, they were super subs well into 2012.
In Rapinoe's case, she was still a sub for the Untied States until seven weeks ago. She's clearly been the best player in the tournament not named Sinclair, and she just recently became an automatic first choice player. Morgan was always tipped for stardom, even well before she pulled on a USWNT shirt for the first time, but it took another post-World Cup tournament for her to convince Sundhage that she needed to be an automatic first choice player as well.
It took entirely too long for Morgan and Rapinoe to get to where they are now. They probably should have been first choice players at the World Cup, but at least the wrong that was them coming off the bench was righted in time for the next major tournament. Now, unlike in the World Cup final, the United States will have their best four attacking players on the same pitch when they face Japan on Thursday.
We'll have news and features in the build-up to our live coverage of the final in our USA Vs. Japan, London 2012 Olympics StoryStream.