After nearly 20 years with the U.S. women’s team, Christie Rampone says she’s reached the end.
This week, the original soccer mom, the last remaining ’99er, acknowledged that she’s played her last international game — after 311 of them, a lifetime record second only to Kristine Lilly’s 352.
Rampone, who turns 41 on Thursday (June 24), has struggled for more than a year to overcome injuries and the march of time. She had knee surgery in December and hoped to join her teammates in Brazil this summer for what would have been her fifth Olympic Games.
But she withdrew from training camp last month, conceding — with a candor uncommon among aging athletes — that she can no longer play at a level necessary to triumph on the world stage.
“You’re grinding and pushing and fighting and battling each and every day, and knowing that I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t commit to it,” she told NBC.
Asked if she expects ever to rejoin Team USA, she replied: “I don’t think so.”
There’s been no formal announcement from Rampone or U.S. Soccer, but in the NBC interview, the longtime team captain left little doubt about her plans, speaking of her career as something in the past.
“I’ve had such a great career, I’ve played so long, and I don’t want to be that player that just can’t give it up and is just holding on,” she said.
Coach Jill Ellis invited Rampone into camp in large part on the strength of her performance this year with Sky Blue FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. Rampone has not only started in all nine of the team’s games; she’s played every minute.
But Sky Blue FC is a far cry from the Olympics.
NWSL teams play once a week. The winner of the Olympic tournament will have completed seven games in 17 days.
In the NWSL, the level of competition is good, but seldom great. Not many players pose a real challenge to someone of Rampone’s talent, even at 41.
On Sky Blue’s 22-woman roster, for example, there’s only one player, Kelley O’Hara, who is also on the current U.S. roster.
Sky Blue’s next opponent is the Washington Spirit, one of the league’s stronger teams. Just two Spirit players — Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn — are on the U.S. national team.
In the Olympics, on the other hand, every match is against one of the world’s best teams. Sure, some are better than others; Germany is a tougher draw than Zimbabwe. But only 12 teams on the planet qualify. All of them can play.
If you lose in the NWSL, you play again next week. In the Olympics, one critical mistake — for example, a 41-year-old defender getting to a ball just a half-step late — can send a team packing. With four years to think about it before the next shot at a gold medal.
Rampone told NBC she’s been able to handle the pace of the NWSL by “managing myself … going two days hard, a day off.” There are no days off, she knows, in the competition for the 18 spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
“I’m realistic in where I’m at and … I just thought I’d be more of a distraction to myself and everyone around me at the national team,” she said.
She said she’ll finish out the current season with Sky Blue before deciding what to do next year.
Christie Rampone made her debut with Team USA on Feb. 28, 1997, coming on for the second half of a 4-0 win over Australia.
She played in the 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympics.
She’s the last player remaining from the storied team that won the 1999 World Cup in a shootout against China before 90,185 roaring fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
There’s a rarely cited footnote to that bit of USWNT trivia: Rampone was a ’99er, but she seldom played. Young Pearcey was buried on the depth chart behind world-class defenders Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, Brandi Chastain and Kate Sobrero (who, as Kate Margraf, has been part of the ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2016). Rampone only saw action in one World Cup game, coming on in the 73rd minute of a 3-0 win over North Korea in the group stage.
Even so, the U.S. coaches knew they had something special in the 5-foot-6 dart. Rampone had been a standout in three sports — soccer, basketball, and lacrosse — at Monmouth University, not far from where she grew up in Point Pleasant, N.J.
A news release from U.S. Soccer described her as “one of the best athletes on the U.S. team” and “one of the USA’s fastest players, with a 30-inch vertical leap.”
She would take leave from the team twice, to give birth to daughters Rylie, now 10, and Reece, now 6. The girls frequently accompany mom on road trips, where they’re doted on by the other U.S. players, their soccer “aunts.”
After each maternity leave, Rampone, a fanatic in the gym, would push herself relentlessly to regain her game-ready fitness. It helped that she was something of a medical miracle: Well into her late 30s, she could outrun teammates barely out of their teens.
In 2008, she was named team captain.
In January of this year, with Rampone on the mend from her knee surgery, Ellis assigned the armband to Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn.
No one said so at the time, but looking back on it, the change probably signified a recognition on all sides that Rampone’s role with the team had diminished — and not just temporarily while her knee got better.
As recently as 2014, she remained a fixture in the lineup, appearing in 17 of 24 games, starting in 14. She logged 1,328 minutes, sixth-highest on the team.
After that, however, the miracle mom started showing her age.
She sat out the first eight games of 2015 because of various injuries and didn’t make her first appearance until May 17.
She was scarcely seen in last summer’s World Cup. Ellis put Rampone in near the end of two games, for a total of 14 minutes.
The second of those appearances, in particular, was clearly a gesture of tribute. Ellis called Rampone’s number in the 86th minute of the final against Japan. Upon entering the game , Captain America became the oldest woman ever to play in a World Cup match: 40 years, 11 days old.
Seven minutes earlier, Abby Wambach had gone in.
At the time, the United States led 5-2. For all intents, the World Cup was over. There was no need for the late substitutions.
But Ellis and the team wanted to make sure the two ancient warriors were on the pitch when the final whistle blew.
Lord knows they’d earned it.
Please click HERE to follow @finishersblog on Twitter.