U.S. star Rapinoe adds Women's Champions League final to résumé
In the last two years, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe has played big games in some of soccer's hallowed stadiums, including Old Trafford, Wembley, St. James' Park, Hampden Park and the Waldstadion. And on Thursday she'll add to that list when Rapinoe's club team, Lyon, meets Wolfsburg in the UEFA Women's Champions League final at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge (GolTV, 2:30 p.m. ET).
"I've been really lucky," said Rapinoe, who scored for Lyon in both the Champions League semis and quarters. "I'm such a fan of the game, and to be able to go to these places and play on the fields is unreal."
It helps to win, too, and two-time defending European champion Lyon comes into the final here as a heavy favorite. You could certainly make the case that Rapinoe's team is the biggest juggernaut in world soccer, men's or women's. In 36 total games this season, Lyon has won 35, tied one (a French Cup semi that it won on penalties vs. Montpellier) and lost not a single time.
The women of Olympique Lyonnais are outscoring their foes 223-10 on the season, and not even the Champions League has provided much resistance. Lyon's two-game aggregate scores in the knockout rounds have been (in order) 12-0, 11-0, 8-0 and 9-1. As a result, the toughest competition the team has faced has often been in training every day.
"Pretty much everyone here could be playing 90 minutes on basically any other club team," Rapinoe said. "It brings a lot of competition, but you know you're well-rewarded if you're in that starting 11. In the [French] league there are four or five good teams, I'd say, that are tough games even if it's 3-0. Juvisy, PSG and Montpellier are the other teams that are good in the league. For us sometimes the occasion brings up that challenge as well. Playing in Champions League puts added pressure on the team."
Rapinoe's Lyon teammates include several stars from the French national team (Louisa Nécib, Camille Abily, Sonia Bompastor, Wendie Renard, Sarah Bouhaddi) and other expats from Sweden (Lotta Schelin) and Japan (Shinobu Ohno).
Rapinoe joined Lyon in January and has fit in well.
"It's been really good," she said. "At the beginning it was a little hard settling in and getting used to the language and the style of the team. It's difficult coming into a team that's been so successful and trying to adapt but also implement my personality within the team. The first month or so, the coach [Patrice Lair] wasn't overly happy, but now that I've gotten along so well with the girls and really become a part of this team, it's been really good. I've gotten more out of this experience than I ever thought I would."
Rapinoe has enjoyed living in Lyon, starting to improve her French and being ensconced in a genuine soccer culture every day, one that also includes the Lyon men's team.
"We share facilities, so we kind of run into them now and then," she said. "I try to race them in my Smart car, but their Ferraris and Maseratis are tough to beat."
After an initial rough patch filling in for Bompastor at left back, Rapinoe is back in her customary left midfield position, though it isn't exactly the same as what she does in a U.S. uniform.
"Tactically, there are a few different things," she said. "My role with the U.S. team is a bit more open and free with more room to roam. But I think with the quality in the central midfield we have here, I'm asked more to stay on the wing and get up and down the field that way."
Rapinoe was allocated to the Seattle Reign of the new NWSL, and she plans on joining Seattle this season after the European season is done. But she's also leaning toward coming back to Lyon for 2013-14.
"I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'm definitely thinking about coming back and playing another season here," she said, noting that the pay is better in Europe, especially with the exchange rate. "There's interest from both sides, from me and Lyon. It's worked out well mutually."
Rapinoe did say that she felt badly about Seattle's brutal start; the Reign is in last place in the NWSL with one point from seven games. "A lot of it is outside their control," she says. "I was put there and chose to come here. Amy [Rodríguez] got pregnant, and Hope [Solo] had to have wrist surgery. Stephanie Cox had a child as well. In a lot of ways they've been dealt a bad hand. But from what I hear the manager [Laura Harvey] is good, and they're just missing some quality in some key positions. It's not encouraging for the girls who are working their butts off."
On Thursday, however, Rapinoe will be focused entirely on the Champions League final. She expects Wolfsburg to play with a more physical nature than Lyon usually sees in the French league, but she allows that the relative lack of video in European women's soccer makes it difficult to scout opponents. In the end, as long as Lyon plays its game, winning a third straight Champions League title should be within the team's power.
Where would a European club crown rank in Rapinoe's career achievements?
"I think right under World Cup finalist and under Olympic champion," she said. "Champions League has only been around for women for a few years now. It's sort of surreal and really cool to be a part of this. I'm so happy I made the choice to come over here. It's something special, something you can't get at home."