Midfielder Megan Rapinoe will be blogging for espnW as the U.S. women's soccer team prepares for the 2012 London Olympics.
It's important to be able to laugh at yourself, and believe me, this month I've had tons of opportunities to do that. In case you missed it, I starred in a Japanese game show and became the cartoon superhero "Crossfire" and then of course there was the online video someone created of me, jumping on a different teammate every time we score. What can I say? I just get super excited. I mean isn't that the whole point -- to score goals? The world is serious enough and my job can be a pressure cooker, so I try to lighten the mood when I can.
So, why was I in Japan? We were there for the Kirin Challenge Cup against the home team and 2011 World Cup champ Japan, and Brazil, currently ranked fourth in the world. A Japanese TV station flew us business class, and it was amazing. Now I'm forever ruined, because if I ever have to travel that far and I'm not in business class, I'm just going to jump out of the plane. It's that much better.
When we arrived, we traveled up to Sendai to visit some of the areas most affected by last year's tsunami. Seeing the devastation was truly eye opening, and to see some of these places in person just really hit home. In some spots it looks like nothing was ever there. We saw one big residential area, probably 300 yards from the coast, and all that was left was the foundations of houses. It's so strange to think how many people used to live there and now this entire community is either wiped out and completely gone or they've moved on and aren't coming back.
But the resilience of the people was incredible. We did soccer clinics with the kids there and I know a lot of them lost family members and their homes, but they're still plugging away, full of smiles. The kids were super excited, too -- and they were asking all kinds of questions like, "Have you met Michael Jackson?" or "Have you met Madonna?" It's funny how every country has its little stereotypes. They were such good soccer players, too! With some of them I was thinking, Oh my gosh, you're 8 and you're freaking awesome!' Recruit them to the U.S. team!
And then, on the opposite side of the spectrum, was the game show. Yeah, I know, your imagination is probably going wild. Well, it was about as hilarious as you can imagine. Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Heather Mitts, Heather O'Reilly and I were all on it. We were supposed to try to score against a robot goalkeeper with a 99.5 percent save rate -- and the only place you could score was to hit it perfectly in the upper 90 (one of the top corners). So even if you kicked it 200 mph, the robot had sensors on it and went off your first touch to stop it. Abby was the only one who scored (twice!) and I think the producers were pretty shocked. That wasn't supposed to happen. The funniest part was that Abby was the last one of us who expected to score. She's not the most technical player, but she totally mis-hit and bent these weird balls. The robokeeper judged the trajectory of your shot immediately, so if the shot changed direction after that it couldn't stop it.
And did I mention that all of this is happening in Japanese? It was just so bizarre -- not only are you on this game show, completely out of your element, but you're just sitting there staring at people speaking Japanese and waiting for somebody to translate. We had a blast, though.
Translators were pretty key to the entire trip, in fact. The Starbucks next to our hotel was our kind of bastion of home -- it's nice to be able to get giant, strong coffee -- but otherwise I'm definitely one who feels when you're in Rome, do as the Romans do. We tried a lot of different foods, which our translators did their best to identify, if not by "it tastes like this," or "it tastes like that," they could at least tell us "it's good," or "it's bad." And I figure, whether it was eel or octopus or something else, at least it was all very fresh. I did try one really sour Japanese plum that was pretty awful. I think the translators told me to try it just to laugh at my face when I did.
And then it was time to actually get some soccer in. In our first game of the Cup, against Japan, the atmosphere was incredible. There were probably 20,000 rambunctious fans, all on their feet for the entire game. Japan is difficult to play against since they really impose their own style. They won't beat you 4-0, but they will beat you 1-0. We struggled and had trouble keeping the possession, but our defense really stepped up and Alex Morgan created some good opportunities, so we tied 1-1. Playing Japan forces us to not play our typical American soccer. We have to be better than that. It's hard to muscle the players because the ball is gone before you even get there. And they play with one head, so to speak. Every player knows the next move the other player is going to make, so it's hard to press defensively. The ball moves faster than any one person can run.
Our second game was against Brazil, and it was a very different scene. The game was moved up four hours because of a windstorm, and there were about 40 people in the crowd compared to the 20,000 we had against Japan. We'd seen a stronger Brazil before, and we'll see a stronger Brazil in London, but I did play in the second half of the game, and almost scored, which was fun. We ended up beating them 3-0, which was good for the game, but Japan edged us for the Cup title by later winning against Brazil 4-1 and beating us out on point difference.
Now we're entering into crunch time, since it's only about three months until the Games. The Olympic roster isn't set, and that's weighing heavily on everyone. I haven't been playing as much as I want to be, so I'm aiming to get back into the regular rotation and hopefully the starting lineup. We're heading to a training camp this week in Florida and have no games for three weeks, which can only mean one thing: It's going to be super hard. We have double training sessions pretty much every day so it will be a camp where we can really grind, push our fitness, dig deep -- and hopefully I'll solidify a spot going into London.
Check out Rapinoe's debut blog, about the playing in record-low temperatures in Dallas.