Christie Rampone knows what it takes

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Most members of the U.S. women's national soccer team remember where they were July 10, 1999, at the moment Brandi Chastain scored on the fifth penalty kick in the World Cup final against China, giving the Americans their second world title and unveiling the most photographed sports bra in history.

Abby Wambach, the Americans' leading scorer heading into the World Cup in Germany this summer, remembers it with photographic detail. She was in a bar in Gainesville, where she was attending the University of Florida. She was 19 and probably shouldn't have been there. Details!

Christie Rampone has a better story and had a better vantage point than any other member of the current U.S. team. She was on the field at the Rose Bowl, a reserve defender. Twelve years later, Rampone, formerly Pearce, is the last playing vestige of that storied team, which briefly elevated women's athletics to a level of mainstream hysteria not seen before or since in this country.

I respect her tremendously, not only as a captain and player but also as a person. She means a lot, and when you talk about bringing out the best performances from each player on the team, she's the one that does that. She creates an environment where it's a pleasure to be around her. She's important for the team.
U.S. women's coach Pia Sundhage on Christie Rampone

Recalling that moment brings a smile, quickly chased by a furrowed brow, as the 35-year-old contemplates her captaincy of this national team. That was then. This is now.

"I'm trying to get across to the team what it takes to win a championship and trying to be that leader," she said in late April during the team's spring camp. "These girls need their own identity, but I want to be there to help show them the way."

Coach Pia Sundhage clearly finds Rampone equal to the task, an inspirational, motivational and high-performance bridge from the 1999 team to a new squad, top-ranked in the world but far from infallible and very much in need of casting its own legacy.

"I respect her tremendously, not only as a captain and player but also as a person," Sundhage said. "She means a lot, and when you talk about bringing out the best performances from each player on the team, she's the one that does that. She creates an environment where it's a pleasure to be around her. She's important for the team."

Heather Mitts, a full-time national team player since 2004, called Rampone "the greatest captain I've ever had" because of her leadership qualities and because Rampone is a daily reminder of what this team hopes to achieve.

"That's huge," she said of Rampone's World Cup title. "That's something we all aspire to. We want to be one of the greatest teams of all time, and that '99 team was the greatest."

Rampone's strength as a leader stems from her ability to speak with authority and perspective to any member of the team. That in itself has been a feat for Rampone, the former college kid who was too shy to speak to her teammates at her first national team tryout in 1997. A scoring forward at tiny Monmouth (N.J.) College -- which she attended on a basketball scholarship -- she had converted to defense after being discovered by former national team coach Tony DiCicco.

"She was a bit of a project," DiCicco told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2008. "She was behind from a tactical and technical standpoint, but she kept putting in the effort. She was someone that we wanted to keep investing in."

The investment yielded great return. Rampone needs just six international appearances to pass Joy Fawcett for fourth place on the American all-time list (239). In 2008, the 5-foot-6 central defender set a U.S. record, logging 3,066 minutes in the calendar year.

"I've been in every role," she said. "I've been a bench player, I've been a starter, I've switched around positions, so I just need to make sure I reach out to everybody and make the experience the best for them and give them confidence."

As the only mother on the team, Rampone brings a certain maternal mindset to her duties. But she's no coddler. Tenacious is more like it. A certified teacher, she is the only player from a small college to make such an impact on a national team that's stocked yearly with players from Division I powerhouses such as North Carolina.

In 2009, her first season as a player in Women's Professional Soccer, Rampone took over as coach of her club with two games remaining and led Sky Blue FC to the inaugural championship. She played 90 minutes in each of three postseason games while three months pregnant.

In 2010, Rampone took off just three months between giving birth to her second child, Reese, on March 6 and returning to the club. She made her return to the national team five weeks later, playing every CONCACAF qualifying game and every minute of a two-game playoff against Italy, in which the Americans finally secured their World Cup berth.

Although Rampone represents a historic chapter in the national team's legacy, she seems determined to help this group forge its own identity, but with a nod toward the lessons learned and respect earned 12 years ago.

"I've learned so much from my experiences with other veteran players," Rampone said, "from Julie [Foudy], from Mia [Hamm] and Carla [Overbeck], that USA mentality, trying to instill that in this next group.

"You realize that was a great team, those girls built up so much together, and put soccer where it is now. Now we're just trying to keep it going," she said. "I think this team is great. We're a little mix of young and old, and this team has not been around as long as that '99 team, and through 2004, we continued to go on and grow. Now, I've got to help get this team on the same page."

If it can keep up.

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