Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Megan Rapinoe's smile never disappeared, although the blond-haired United States midfielder was on the wrong end of a late decision by manager Pia Sundhage that stripped her of a starting job in the days leading up to the Women's World Cup.
Athletes regularly lose starting roles, but this decision came on the eve of the Women's World Cup, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the 26- year-old Californian.
Rapinoe debuted for the United States in 2006, but spent the majority of the next two years recovering from two anterior cruciate ligament injuries. With those injuries behind her, 2011 was finally her big chance.
Megan Rapinoe can use both feet well, is great in possession, and her passes are game-changers.
Then, the decision was made. Sundhage replaced Rapinoe with Lauren Cheney in the lineup. Oddly, it's worked out well for Rapinoe. But, perhaps that's the norm for someone who said her ACL injuries were "one of the best things that ever happened to me."
"It really gave me a different perspective. Before, everything was going how it was supposed to be and I wasn't really appreciative of what I was doing," Rapinoe said in 2009. "The injury grounded me in a lot of different ways."
That maturity undoubtedly helped Rapinoe adjust to Sundhage's switch. And it helped her emerge as one of the best players in the World Cup this summer in Germany, even though she has not started a single game.
The statistics show the obvious: in just 218 minutes in five appearances off the bench, Rapinoe has one goal and one assist. The assist, a pinpoint cross on a full sprint, set up Abby Wambach's memorable goal against Brazil.
But the statistics fail to show the impact Rapinoe has made for the American team, which can win its third Women's World Cup against Japan on Sunday. She was the spark against Brazil - not just for setting up the game-tying goal - in the quarterfinals and against France in the semifinals.
Rapinoe is blessed with a mix of talent that adds a missing dynamic. She can use both feet well, is great in possession, and her passes - as evidenced in the quarterfinal the U.S. went on to win on penalties - are game-changers.
Australia's Lisa De Vanna was the unquestioned super sub of the 2007 Women's World Cup when she had four goals mostly off the bench. In Germany this summer, Rapinoe has carried that torch.
As Sundhage has repeatedly said, in so many words, she has more than just 11 starters. Rapinoe has proven that so far, whether it's for 11 minutes, all she played in the first game of the tournament, or in 73 minutes against Sweden.
"To be able to come on and provide energy," Rapinoe said of her role off the bench. "Pia and the assistants wanted me to give that spark and be active. I think I did a good job doing that and give our team some extra legs."
Arguably the two most important legs in the tournament so far for the U.S. - and there's still one final chance awaiting against Japan. Sundhage could be tempted to start Rapinoe on Sunday (Who could blame her?), but it is obvious the super sub belongs on the bench.
Just not for too long, or the smile on Rapinoe's face might disappear, along the Americans' hopes.