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Thursday June 17th, 2021 12:35PM

Rapinoe returns to US national team after nearly a year

By The Associated Press
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It was quite a year for Megan Rapinoe. Her book came out, she hosted an HBO special and she got engaged to girlfriend Sue Bird.

One thing was largely missing, however: soccer.

That's changing now that Rapinoe has returned to the U.S. national team for its January training camp in Florida after sitting out most of last year.

“I actually feel really good physically and just refreshed in a lot of ways, mentally and emotionally. I’ve spent obviously a lot of time quarantining at home with Sue and just being able to relax,” Rapinoe said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “But I’m obviously so excited to start playing again. It was really difficult to not be out on the field with my teammates and to not have a consistent training environment. Anyone who really knows me knows I hate to work out on my own as it is.”

When the coronavirus began to take hold in the United States last March and the National Women's Soccer League called off its season, Rapinoe — who plays for OL Reign — hunkered down at home.

She opted out of the NWSL's Challenge Cup tournament in a bubble in Utah last summer and the league's fall series. She also opted out of the national team's October camp.

She said part of her reasoning for the break was fear of COVID-19, but she was also exhausted from the whirlwind that came after the U.S. victory in the World Cup in France. Rapinoe earned FIFA Best Player and Ballon d'Or honors following her play in soccer's premier tournament.

The last time Rapinoe played for the national team was on March 11, when she scored in a 3-1 SheBelieves Cup victory over Japan.

The game was notable because the national team players, embroiled in a contentious discrimination lawsuit over equal pay with U.S. Soccer, wore warmup jerseys inside out in protest of the federation's controversial tactics in defending the suit. That ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro.

The national team settled its dispute with the federation over unequal working conditions in December, leaving the pay dispute still unresolved.

Throughout her career, Rapinoe has been a vocal advocate for equal pay and other social justice issues, including LGBTQ rights. She sparred with President Donald Trump via Twitter during the World Cup and last year was involved in get-out-the-vote initiatives in support of President-elect Joe Biden.

She called last week's riot at the U.S. Capitol “very unsettling and scary.”

“I think the courage of the lawmakers to get back in there and continue their work, and the utter bottomlessness of some of these lawmakers to continue to incite violence and still call for overturning the election when the mandate’s been given by the United States and by the people of United States, is just absolutely insane," she said. "They should be held accountable.”

Rapinoe got emotional when she was asked about how she felt watching fellow NWSL players kneel and speak out against systemic racism during the Challenge Cup. In 2016, Rapinoe knelt in solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. U.S. Soccer reacted by prohibiting players from kneeling during the anthem, a rule that was rescinded last June.

“I have just a huge amount of pride and respect for so many people going through the journey and learning and growing, and feeling more comfortable speaking out about things,” she said. “What we saw through the summer and just through the pandemic, with the protests, hopefully a lot of people’s eyes are opened up, particularly my fellow white teammates.”

She praised U.S. Soccer for apologizing over the ban.

Rapinoe, 35, has scored 52 goals with 68 assists in 168 appearances with the national team since her first call-up in 2006. She scored on a penalty kick in the United States' victory over the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup final.

During her break this summer, she hosted the HBO special “Seeing America,” which included U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she released a memoir, “One Life.” In October, she and WNBA veteran Sue Bird announced their engagement.

Coach Vlatko Andonovski said Rapinoe has not disregarded her fitness during the layoff. He expects Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, who hasn't played since last spring because of injury, to get minutes in a pair of exhibition games against Colombia later this month in Orlando.

“Megan and Carli have been doing a tremendous, tremendous job. Our high performance department, high performance coach, has been monitoring everything that they’re doing,” Andonovski said. “We have a pretty good idea of where they stand. In fact, both of them are a little bit ahead of what we expected them to be in January camp from the physical standpoint."

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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