Sports

Megan Rapinoe took her first steps toward soccer stardom in Elk Grove. That’s right – Elk Grove

This isn’t stated enough: Megan Rapinoe, the supernova cultural phenomenon who led the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team to a record fourth World Cup title over the weekend, is a product of Elk Grove youth soccer. Honestly, there should be a sign at the Elk Grove city limits that heralds Rapinoe’s four years of local youth soccer exploits.

Why? Because you could even say that Elk Grove was Rapinoe’s gateway to a broader world now fully aware of her on-field greatness.

On Sunday, Rapinoe won the Golden Boot, given to the top scorer in the World Cup. And she won the Golden Ball, presented to the best overall player of the global tournament.

The 34-year-old did it all in her exquisite purple hair. She finished off each goal with her now trademark celebration of running toward the galleries of delirious fans and then posing like a goddess with her arms open wide to the masses and her head tilted to the soccer goddesses and gods above.

They surely approved. Many of us were smitten by Rapinoe’s beautiful audacity as a female athlete who didn’t give a rip about dated preconceptions of how female athletes should behave. Some powerful people have shrunk after getting trolled by President Donald Trump on Twitter. (I’m looking at you, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.).

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But Rapinoe? She only grew stronger after Trump tweeted in late June that she should “win first” before talking about winning the cup. Trump went on to lecture Rapinoe on Twitter that she should respect the flag, which is interesting coming from a man who used his privilege to duck military service during the Vietnam War.

Rapinoe drew the ire of Trump in the context of saying she would not visit the White House if her team won the cup, a proclamation that Rapinoe punctuated with a word that starts with “F.”

In the ensuing controversy, Rapinoe scored two goals against Spain in her team’s first elimination game of the tournament. She scored two goals in an epic quarterfinal against the host, France.

And she scored the first goal in a 2-0 final victory over the Netherlands. In male soccer culture, players have become legends for doing a lot less. And no man has done any of this while getting trolled and vilified by the MAGA hat crowd. Or the anti-equal-pay-for-women crowd, which Rapinoe and her teammates have championed by suing their own soccer federation. They demand to be paid what their far less successful American male colleagues get.

Nor has any man done this as an openly gay athlete as Rapinoe, who came out in 2012.

No male athlete has taken on the world on so many cultural levels while taking the world by storm.

So, let’s repeat: Elk Grove.

Elk Grove is where the Redding-born and raised Rapinoe first got out of her comfort zone as an athlete. Instead of playing high school soccer in her hometown, if not a dead end then surely an impediment, a Sacramento-area soccer coach named Danny Cruz talked her parents into driving young Megan and her twin sister Rachael into making a 300-mile round trip from Redding to Elk Grove four days a week for four years, starting in 2002. They played for the Elk Grove Pride in the Women’s Professional Soccer League and for one of Cruz’s youth league teams.

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Playing for the Elk Grove Pride in 2005, Megan Rapinoe, right, battles Southern California Ajax’s Shannon Boxx for the ball during a Women’s Premier Soccer League match at Cosumnes River College. The Ajax beat the Pride 4-2. Carl Costas Sacramento Bee file

Before she locked horns with Trump on social media, Rapinoe was a small and slender player on a club team composed of high school girls competing and winning against young women playing college soccer.

“She had it in her from the beginning, she just needed a road map,” said Cruz, who was her Elk Grove Pride coach from 2002 to 2005.

“I knew that she had the potential just by watching her play,” he said. “I thought if I could just guide her and put her in the right spots, that her work was going to get her where she was going to go.”

After her time in Elk Grove, Rapinoe was recruited to play at the University of Portland, where she became a collegiate star. She won a national championship there with two of her Elk Grove teammates: her sister Rachael and Stephanie Cox.

Cruz marvels now that Elk Grove produced all three women who won collegiate titles and played for the U.S. National Team.

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USA soccer player Megan Rapinoe visits with her parents, Jim and Denise Rapinoe, in 2012 in Redding in before appearing in the London Olympics. Paul Kitagaki Jr. Sacramento Bee file

That experience got Rapinoe out of Redding for good. She is still loyal to her hometown, but being away put her on track to becoming the person she was going to be – far away from the town that voted heavily for Trump.

She would become the face of U.S. Women’s Soccer, of its fight for equal pay. She would become the first athlete outside the NFL to take a knee during the national anthem, a gesture made in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality.

Rapinoe would do all of this while remaining fiercely, uniquely herself. Who knew? You certainly wouldn’t tell by the Bee archives, where Rapinoe’s name first appeared in 2002. Back then, she was always a name mentioned in a parenthetical reference. It wasn’t until 2012, after playing in her first World Cup, did Rapinoe begin generating headlines of her own.

Now Rapinoe has changed the way people view women’s sports. Being out and open in her relationship with WNBA star Sue Bird has made even more glaring that gay male athletes largely remain in the closet.

Who knew? Well, Cruz did – back in the day.

“Megan was always very outspoken,” he said. “But now for the first time, she was put at the top of the media around the world. She could say something and everyone would hear her. And everybody did hear her.

“On top of winning the Golden Boot and the MVP, she testified, she testified to what she stands for, “ he said. “She taught a lot of young women and men too. I think she has touched a lot of people.”

Elk Grove should start erecting that “Soccer home of Megan Rapinoe” sign right now.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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