Closing the Book on History: Captain America Says Goodbye to the National Team

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Watching players retire can be heartbreaking.

As the story of women’s soccer moves forward, we begin to lose the names that have become familiar to us, the players we grew up watching. Even as new stars break out on the pitch, our long-time favorites must eventually leave it as time and the sport march on. 

Aly Wagner had her last USWNT cap in 2008. Cat Whitehill in 2010. Lori Chalupny, Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach, and Lauren Holiday in 2015.

And each and every one of them got their first cap after Christie Rampone started playing, and retired before Rampone will have finished playing. 

What no one tells you when you start following a national team is this: following a national team is hard. It’s not like following a baseball team, or a football team. It’s a much different mental state. Players come and go, often more quickly than at the club level. In the NWSL, for example, there are enough spots between the ten rosters, the active player pool has to be very large. But at the national team-level, especially as limited by the (now-expired) CBA conditions, there just isn’t the space. The potential player pool is huge, and while historically the USWNT has often kept players past their prime, fan favorites or players whose past performance has earned them the benefit of the doubt–and, yeah, I’m talking about Wambach at the 2015 World Cup here, among others–it’s a trend we already see being left behind. We’ve reached a new era in the history of the USWNT’s structure, one that moves at a higher pace. 

With 311 caps, Rampone might very well be the last 300+ player the USWNT ever produces, possibly the last in women’s soccer history. Ellis, and maybe all of USSF, want to keep the flow of talent moving from roster to roster. Experience matters less than it has in the whole of the history of the USWNT. On one hand this makes sense as the game gets more and more technical and a style of play based on pure athleticism falls out of favor as other teams improve their athletic talent. On the other hand it’s going to mean more player turnover, a less-stable player pool and fewer and fewer decade long careers to celebrate, not to mention two decade long ones.

Having a more fluid player pool is, at best, a way to motivate players to keep upping their game and at worst a force that keeps the team as a whole off-kilter and unable to form proper cohesion. We saw some of this in 2016 after a handful of long time players stepped away and an influx of new players were brought in. Personnel changed, formations changed, at times it looked like no one knew what they were doing. And while the slow trickle of new talent and new players over the years needs to become a more steady stream, the torrent of changes in 2016 shows that it can’t be coupled with total strategic change as well.

Having players like Rampone or O’Reilly or Engen on the pitch brings a level of experience and often a calm in their play that aids the less experience players. How many times have we seen co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn control the backline, and make saves that ought to be just impossible? It’s not just her skill that makes and breaks the backline–it’s her experience. Her ability to read opposing offenses and break them down time after time after time. 

There needs to be a mix between keeping experienced vets and bringing in new players. There needs to be a balance of stability as well as innovation, or the whole pitch tends to look a mess.

Lately we’ve seen an all or nothing system where the rules are made up as we go. And this is why its so important to acknowledge the departure of Rampone from the national team level. Without her, the team has lost some of the history, the knowledge, the experience, that brought them to the podium time and time again, including 2015’s historic third Women’s World Cup. 

But, outside of all of this, it’s important to acknowledge what Rampone has done for and meant not just to the team, but to the fans, to our personal stories of why we follow, why we love the sport.

For me, Rampone serves a prominent role in my own soccer story.

Unlike a good deal of fans in their late-20s or early-30s, my first taste of soccer didn’t come in 1999. I didn’t fall in love with soccer watching the ’99ers march their way around the US in search of glory at the first Women’s World Cup held in the United States. I became a fan during the Summer Olympics in Athens. I became a fan when, on August 23, 2004, I watched the USWNT play against Germany. I became a fan as Heather O’Reilly hit the net in extra time to send the US to the final.

As I sat waiting for beach volleyball to come on I had to wait for this soccer game to finish. And somehow, watching these woman play a sport I’d never really cared about before, I got hooked. Because it was exciting and powerful and something I had never known before. This game was not one I grew up playing or watching. Girls’ soccer wasn’t a sport my high school even offered. A few played on the boys’ team but saw little field time.

2004 was my 1999. And as I came to figure out later Rampone was my Mia Hamm.

While O’Reilly was who caught my attention first it was Rampone who kept it. It was Rampone who made me tilt my head in wonder as I tried to figure out how she could know what a forward would do before they did it.

In the context of how people talk about the game, Christie Rampone was my Mia Hamm. She was the one that first made me understand the give and take of soccer. It wasn’t all goal scoring and celebration. There was beauty in defending, in working a forward until they turned how you wanted and picking the ball off before they knew what hit them.

Because I didn’t know the history of the women’s march for athletic success and recognition, I went back and watched matches featuring Hamm and Akers and Foudy after I had already watched the games of 2004, 2005, and 2006. I grew to understand the dynamics of the challenges they faced in just trying to make a name for their sport after some of my ideas were already long set in stone. Ideas of how the game should be played and what a “proper” forward, midfielder, defender and goalkeeper should be.

In sports, the first players you see, the first names you recognize, the first magic-makers you watch create miracles on the field, those are the ones that stay with you. The ones who linger and inform your thoughts on every other player you watch take the field. The first players who grabbed my attention were Heather O’Reilly and Christie Rampone. They are the soccer bar against which I judge every new player on the pitch, and let me tell you, it’s a pretty high bar.

But now, as Rampone goes off the national team bench for good, the book on the famous ’99ers finally can be closed and set down. Players might finally be able to step fully out of their shadow now that the last of the previous generation has left the USWNT locker room. But Rampone served as the near-perfect bridge between generations. From the last and the likes of Carla Overbeck to the current and the likes of Julie Johnston. And if you don’t know who Carla Overbeck is it’s time to go watch some old games if you can find them and watch a true master in central defense.

She was able to hold on when others just couldn’t. A little luck maybe, good DNA surely, but most of it, I’m sure, was just force of will and pure love of the game.

I am going to be “that person” and quote my own work. Last year when the USWNT had a camp before the Olympics, Rampone withdrew. I closed my piece about her stepping away with this:

There will never be another player quite like Christie Rampone. Her number 3 will never quite look the same on someone else’s back as it did on hers. She might never have reached the level of name recognition that Mia Hamm or Alex Morgan have. She was never as publicly outspoken as Abby Wambach. But Rampone was the heartbeat of the United States women’s national team for over half of its life. She was a leader—a force to be reckoned with on defense and a guiding force to players young and old. Stepping away on her own terms must be commended even if the taste left in many people’s mouths is bittersweet.

Captain America will officially end her tenure as captain and player on the national team on March 4. All I can say is I’ve never been happier we have the NWSL to give us at least two-dozen games to say goodbye to one of the greatest players, and for my money the greatest defender, the game has ever seen.

Who knows, maybe in her final year she might need to pack for LA again.