It didn’t take long to witness the whole Megan Rapinoe experience on Tuesday. In the first two minutes of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s group match against Colombia, she whipped in two dangerous crosses — one with each foot — from the left flank, which, on another day, could have easily led to a goal or two for the Americans. And in the fourth minute, she fell and clutched her leg after a harsh challenge from a defender, leading the announcer to intone the anxiety-inducing phrase “slightly slow to her feet.”
Eight months and five days after tearing her ACL in a training session, Rapinoe returned to the pitch as the U.S. tied Colombia, 2–2, and finished atop its group. In terms of what it means for her career outside of the Olympics, Rapinoe’s rapid return from her third ACL tear is welcome news. But as it affects the USWNT’s gold-medal chances, the development might not be as valuable as Rapinoe’s reputation suggests.
Despite receiving the nod against Colombia, she’s not likely to start another game at these Olympics. She is not yet in full-match fitness and came off as part of a planned substitution after 32 full minutes on Tuesday. Her corner kicks in particular — in the past an Olympic specialty for her — were a touch too heavy, and outside of her early crosses, she didn’t make an impact in open play.
Yet when a single cross or set piece is all it takes to change a game, Rapinoe is an overqualified plan B. “A big part of the selection is that she is a game changer,” head coach Jill Ellis said last week about Rapinoe’s inclusion on the roster. “And a game changer can come in for 15 minutes and make a difference.” She carries this reputation thanks to her thread-the-needle cross against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup. But focusing only on her crossing obscures her other talents, in the same way that Blake Griffin’s highlight-package dunks overshadow his ability to score off midrange jumpers, or make balletic post moves and savvy cuts to the rim.
At her best, Rapinoe can run at a defender and open up space for a shot; she can cut between opponents and make room for through balls and drop-off passes to teammates. Whether that part of the package will be present over the next week and a half remains in question. As recently as last month, she still hadn’t advanced past noncontact practice.
Still, in individual moments, Rapinoe reminded Ellis on Tuesday why she may consider no. 15 an option in a late-game crisis. She’s a calming veteran influence in a midfield that, aside from stalwart Carli Lloyd, can force the action irresponsibly at times. Just count the number of misplaced passes and stiff first touches during the 15 minutes in which the U.S. trailed Colombia, and imagine the level of panicked pressing that might arise in the second half of an elimination match.
Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh each scored Tuesday, but they have both looked shaky on the ball so far — Dunn against France before impressing against Colombia; Pugh against Colombia, even while notching a goal — and have never played in an international contest as big as an Olympic semifinal. The last time Rapinoe appeared in that round, she scored twice.
She may not score or play meaningful moments in this tournament. But with only 18 women on the roster, compared with 23 at the World Cup, every player might have the chance to contribute to a gold-medal run. The U.S. might play Brazil in the semifinals, and we all know what happened the last time they met in a knockout game.