Fearless Rapinoe leads US on and off the field

USA co-captain Megan Rapinoe is a leader on and off the pitch for the defending world champions (AFP Photo/ELSA) (GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP)

Los Angeles (AFP) - Fearless and ferocious, on and off the field, Megan Rapinoe will be one of the cornerstones of the United States dressing room as they chase a record fourth Women's World Cup crown.

The 33-year-old attacking midfielder is one of the four co-captains of the American team, forming a brains trust alongside Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Alex Morgan which has amassed around 750 caps between them.

Rapinoe, who will be playing in her third World Cup, is an unmistakeable presence in the US ranks, her shock of cropped, blonde hair making her instantly recognisable.

The veteran also stands out for her willingness to speak her mind, whether it's leading calls for greater gender equality in the women's game or supporting NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's 2016 protests by kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity.

Rapinoe continues to speak out, even though those close to her, including her mother Denise, worry that she risks being penalised for her candour.

"My mum always says 'Why does it always have to be you?'" Rapinoe told AFP. "But I have a big mouth and I am fine to use it."

That sense of combativeness has been a hallmark of Rapinoe's career.

The Seattle player has battled back from three serious knee injuries to earn 153 caps since making her international debut in 2006, scoring 44 goals in the process.

- Tackling inequality -

In 2012, she came out as gay shortly before playing a key role in the US women's gold medal-winning campaign at the London Olympics, and has since fought tirelessly to promote the rights of the LGBT community.

She is also one of the leaders of the US women's fight for pay equality. The US women's team filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation in March accusing the organisation of gender discrimination.

"In every aspect of life, the more we can tackle the inequality from a lot a different angles, perspectives, different lanes the quicker we can rectify the problem," Rapinoe said. "The incremental change that we've seen is not enough. I would like to see a major paradigm shift, a major overhaul to realise that there's been such a lack of investment for all these years, such a lack of care and attention to the women's game."

Rapinoe's outspoken nature has, predictably, drawn criticism.

When she knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick's protests against racial inequality in 2016, a stance she took while playing for both club and country, she was vilified relentlessly on social media, with calls for her to be dumped from the national team.

The US Soccer Federation responded by introducing a rule making it mandatory for players to stand during the anthem.

"That was a really good lesson for me: This is what it's going to take for things to change, norms to change, conventions to change," Rapinoe said.

- Trump snub -

Rapinoe however, has no plans to dial back her activism. She has already stated that she would not attend any White House reception for the US team hosted by President Donald Trump.

"Absolutely not. I have no interest in extending our platform to (Trump)," Rapinoe told Sports Illustrated last month.

"I am not going to fake it, hobnob with the president, who is clearly against so many of the things that I am for and so many of the things that I actually am."

While this year's World Cup has enjoyed a rapid increase in profile, Rapinoe acknowledges that the women's sport still has a long way to go.

"It's gonna take a long time to break down a lot of these systems that have been ingrained in our culture and society for hundreds of years," she said. "It's not one movement or one summer where people are excited to talk about it or one hashtag that goes viral."