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               === Rapinoe embraces unexpected role for U.S. ===
 
 By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor
 
 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.
 
 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.
 
 07/16 18:40:19 ET