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Megan Rapinoe wants to leave next USWNT generation in better place

Megan Rapinoe scores a goal against Spain during the 2019 Women's World Cup. (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe knew from the second she heard former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames yelling from the sideline during a game that he was not a nice person.

Everything she had heard about then-Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley and then-Sky Blue FC coach Christy Holly of Sky Blue FC made her feel the same way. Dames, Riley and Holly were the coaches at the center of Sally Yates’ report on abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in the NWSL, which was released Monday. Rapinoe was playing in her first season in the league when she heard Dames yelling that day in 2013.

While the rest of the women’s soccer world processes the findings in the report, NWSL and U.S. women’s national team veterans like Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Crystal Dunn have known for years about complaints their teammates have filed to team, league and federation authorities, only for those people to ignore them. Balancing soccer with emotional exhaustion is nothing new to them. They’re also used to speaking to reporters about off-field issues, which in the past has also included equal pay, LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice.

So, Rapinoe, Sauerbrunn and Dunn volunteered themselves to answer the tough questions from the media this week about how the national team is doing as they prepare for two friendlies in Europe against England and Spain. Helping protect the younger players while also showing them how they can carry the torch someday is the way the USWNT has always operated.

“As sick as this sounds, I feel like we’re used to having to take on so much more than a game plan and tactics,” Rapinoe said. “I feel like we have an incredible ability to shoulder so much … The older players can help shield and shoulder a lot, whether it’s media attention or just what we do, how do you act. It’s probably, as a younger player, like, ‘The f— is going on? Like, how do I even deal with this?’ They can always look to us, just as we can always look to our older players.”

They hope they can make enough a difference so that the young players on the current USWNT roster — including 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson and NWSL rookies Naomi Girma, Savannah DeMelo, Sam Coffey and Jaelin Howell — won’t have to address off-field issues as often as Rapinoe’s generation has.

For the two-time World Cup champion, it’s not only about setting an example. Less experienced players need to be given the space to do their jobs and make their mark on the national team. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has been evaluating new talent throughout the last year as he builds a 2023 World Cup roster.

On Friday, the reigning World Cup champions play a highly anticipated friendly against England, the defending Euro Cup champions, in front of a sold-out crowd at Wembley Stadium in London. Everyone has to be ready.

“We’re players, first and foremost. So I feel like that’s the first team that we play for, all of us,” Rapinoe said. “I think for us, it’s just always a matter of trying to keep the team in the best situation possible and sort of using every ounce of leadership or knowledge or whatever to just make sure that everybody can show up and do their job, and also just trying to make everyone as comfortable as possible in a time that’s really uncomfortable and we can’t really get away from that.”

Success on the field is what gives the USWNT the platform to have a voice in the first place. Growing the game both on and off the field is a responsibility that all USWNT players have borne through the years.

“It’s something that this team has always taken pride in and taken on and ensuring that we leave the game in a better place,” Rapinoe said. “I think the game is already in a better place after this report than it was the day before it came out.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.