Four years of hindsight aren't nearly enough.
When Megan Rapinoe thinks back on the goal—that goal, to the players and supporters of the United States women's national team—she's still not quite sure what to make of it. Words like "crazy" come to mind, and why not?
The setting was Dresden, Germany, and the quarterfinals of the 2011 Women's World Cup. Brazil led 2-1 in extra time, and the U.S. was heading for its worst-ever World Cup finish. But then, in the 122nd minute, the Americans broke forward for one last attack. The ball rolled out to Rapinoe on the left, and she drove a perfect cross to the back post, where Abby Wambach headed in a dramatic equalizer.
The U.S. went on to win the match on penalties and rode its momentum all the way to the final before losing to Japan in a shootout. And as Rapinoe sees it, the Wambach goal was the moment when the USWNT went mainstream—again. The team, of course, had already achieved widespread popularity in the U.S. in 1999, when Brandi Chastain's penalty at the Rose Bowl clinched a second women's World Cup title. But 12 years had passed, and when Wambach's header went in, a new generation of fans were hooked.
"From a macro perspective, I don't think we would be here today, where we are, with the kind of media coverage and the kind of publicity and support and popularity that this team have," Rapinoe said. "I think that kind of started to revive it a little bit, in a way."
The U.S. conquered the disappointment of losing the World Cup final by claiming gold at the London Olympics one year later, beating Japan in the final match. In the semifinals, the Americans erased three deficits and overcame a Christine Sinclair hat trick before beating Canada 4-3 in extra time.
The rivalry between the close neighbors remains fierce, and when asked whether Canada should be considered favorites as hosts of the upcoming World Cup, she was unequivocal.
"I don't think that they've earned that," she said. "They played really well at the last Olympics, but they still have a little ways to go. If you look at the quality of play with us, Germany, France and Japan would be in there. I still think that those are the top-tier countries.
This summer, the World Cup will feature games played on artificial turf, a surface that has caused much controversy. Rapinoe called it "second-class," and Wambach tweeted that "the men would strike playing [World Cup matches] on artificial turf."
A group of players sued FIFA last year over the artificial turf, pointing out that FIFA spent $2 million to place natural grass in the Detroit and New Jersey venues for the 1994 men's World Cup (h/t Equalizer Soccer). The group dropped the suit in January, per the New York Times, but bad feelings remain.
Speaking to B/R, Rapinoe said: "Just simply put, it's the biggest competition that you can play in as an international footballer. That's it. And obviously, turf is a second-class surface. If it wasn't, then all men's teams would play on turf. You'd see Champions League games on turf, you'd see EPL games on turf. ... But it's obviously a second-class kind of surface, and I think for us, just to know the amount of money FIFA makes every year, and the amount of money they made off the [men's] World Cup—and I think they'll make money off our World Cup—to say it's not plausible to put grass in?
"They could have put grass in last year, let it set in, and mandated that, yes, while Canada submitted their bid with turf, it should have been something that FIFA supplemented and made sure that their showcase of the most important tournament in women's football is done with the highest level of respect. And I just don't think that happened."
Asked whether playing on a second-class surface makes the players feel like FIFA is treating the women's World Cup like a second-class competition, Rapinoe had strong words for the world governing body.
"I think it's hard to not feel a sting across your face when you think of—just logistically, I think it would cost under $10 million, and probably well under that...to have all the grass necessary to have all these games," she said.
"And then they just didn't do it and basically didn't even want to talk about the issue, just kind of brush it under the rug, like all the things FIFA do that aren't really right or aren't just." Rapinoe continued. "They don't account to anyone, so basically, they don't give a f--k."
Despite the controversy, Rapinoe said she expects the World Cup to feature more quality than in past editions, and that the on-field product will help the women's game continue to grow.
The U.S. will play in Group D with Sweden, Nigeria and Australia. Sweden defeated the Americans 2-1 in the group stage four years ago on the way to a third-place finish and will again pose a threat to top the group. Nigeria and Australia, meanwhile, won't be pushovers, according to Rapinoe.
"All three teams are pretty different," she said. "They're going to pose different challenges, so tactically, we have to adjust a bit for each team."
The depth of Group D is no coincidence, either. The quality of play will be higher throughout the tournament, as Rapinoe noted: "All across the board, these teams are getting so much better. It may not be that they're progressing to the next round, but you're not going to see teams getting blown out 4- and 5-0 like they have in past World Cups.
"All the leagues around the world as well, the competition is just so high, and I think that federations and clubs around the world are really putting so much into these teams and into their programs, and you can see it translate up to the top."
For her personal preparation, Rapinoe has partnered with SKLZ, a company that provides training tools for soccer players, to aid her as she trains while she is away from national and club teams. As for the U.S., Rapinoe said the team is "deeper" and "more versatile" than four years ago. Both will help as the Americans make the 1,400-mile trip from Winnipeg to Vancouver between their second and third group games. If the team wins Group D and makes the final, the schedule would involve playing the semifinal in Montreal before traveling 2,800 miles back to Vancouver for the final.
"These games are going to be really tough on the turf, and especially with the amount of travel that we're going to have to do," Rapinoe said. "No matter if you can fly on the best private plane that you can get, you're still traveling thousands of miles over a short span [of time]. So I think our depth, and our versatility within that depth, is going to be something that really sets us apart."
If that sounds like confidence, it should. Rapinoe said that the expectation of the American players is "to win the World Cup." The two-time champs have prepared well, beating the Republic of Ireland and Mexico by a combined score of 8-1 in their first two send-off matches.
The team's World Cup campaign begins on June 8 with a match against Australia in Winnipeg.
"I feel like we're starting to get to that time where the buzz is palpable," Rapinoe said. "We've been talking about it for so long, because this World Cup has had so much more media coverage, at least compared to the last one.
"It feels like we've been talking about it, but now it's actually here."