THERE SHE goes again. The woman known to her teammates as Pinoe is rolling now, riffing hard on one of her favorite sports moments. No, not her epic pass to Abby Wambach in last year's Women's World Cup, the play that rallied the U.S. in the quarterfinals against Brazil and galvanized a nation, but rather Allen Iverson's legendary rant on behalf of game-day performers the world over. "Are we talkin' about practice?" Pinoe squawks, her sass meter on full throttle. "We're sittin' here, and I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're talkin' about practice?"
Pinoe smiles. "I love that clip," she says.
Pinoe—a.k.a. Megan Rapinoe, U.S. midfielder—is in on the joke, of course. Even though U.S. women's coach Pia Sundhage says Rapinoe can produce magic with a soccer ball, there's a reason the manager yanked Rapinoe's starting spot for much of the past year. Practice. "I try to keep my training at a high level all the time," Rapinoe says, "but games are just so much more exciting. It's a lot easier for me to stay plugged into games."
As the U.S. women seek their third straight Olympic gold medal, though, Rapinoe has won back the faith of her coach, starting the four matches leading up to the Games and drawing acclaim as the U.S.'s most influential player in two group-stage wins in Glasgow last week. In a 4--2 victory over France, Rapinoe had the key passes—one long, one short and one set-piece—on three U.S. goals. Then, in a 3--0 triumph over Colombia, Rapinoe bagged another assist and smacked a curling long-range goal that would have made David Beckham envious. "Of all the players, she's the one who takes a lot of chances," says Sundhage, whose team clinched a spot in the quarterfinals.
Truth be told, Pinoe is the most un-American player in U.S. women's soccer, and that's a compliment. For decades the U.S. has thrived on strength and speed more than skill. Rapinoe is different. With a build that more closely resembles Twiggy than tigress—she models her look on the actress Tilda Swinton—Rapinoe relies instead on clever dribbling, fluid movement and visionary passing. It's a little bit of Barcelona in red, white and blue.
If the early years of U.S. women's soccer were defined by East Coast athleticism, today's team is symbolized by a more freewheeling West Coast vibe. Seven of the 11 U.S. starters played college ball on the West Coast, including Rapinoe, who grew up in the Northern California city of Redding and played at Portland. But the key to her creativity, she says, was playing under Danny Cruz, her club coach at age 13 with Elk Grove United in Sacramento.
"I don't think he ever really told me how to play," says Rapinoe. "He was really good about letting us make mistakes and play free. That was cool. There are a lot of really bad coaches in the U.S. who maybe don't focus on the right things. Sometimes creativity is stamped out at a young age. You have to be a 'typical American.' I take pride in the fact that I'm not a typical American."
Rapinoe isn't typical when it comes to most things, whether it's her trademark bleached-blonde hair, her goal celebrations—she famously sang "Born in the U.S.A." into a fieldside microphone after scoring in the World Cup—or her eclectic attire, which one day last week included a gray fedora, black wraparound scarf, multicolored earrings, black-framed hipster glasses and indigo high-top Chucks. So it made sense last month when Rapinoe blazed another trail. On a team whose long-standing mass appeal has been based in part on its ponytailed girl-next-door aura, Pinoe became the first prominent U.S. women's soccer player to come out in the media as gay.
RAPINOE HAS never hidden her sexual orientation among friends, family and teammates, but she didn't come out publicly until the most recent issue of Out magazine. "I've been thinking about it for a while," she says. "We live part of our lives in the media, and there's something to be said for saying, 'This is who I am, and I'm proud of it.' The more people who do come out, the more, I guess, normal it becomes." The response, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive.
Rapinoe's willingness to stand out emerged early in a family with five children—Megan and her fraternal-twin sister, Rachael, are the youngest. Their parents drove the twins more than two hours each way to practice in Sacramento despite their own busy jobs: Rapinoe's father, Jim, works in construction, while her mother, Denise, has been a waitress at a popular Redding steak house for 25 years. It's a close-knit family with a healthy independent streak. "Our parents encouraged us to be individuals, so we're not afraid to be original," says Rachael, a former Portland teammate who joined Megan's Australian girlfriend in Glasgow last week to cheer for the Stars and Stripes.