Rampone: I can’t believe I’m still here

USA captain Christie Rampone made her 300th appearance for the national team on Friday, a 3-0 win over Mexico that sent the Stars and Stripes to next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The tournament will be a fifth global showpiece for the three-time Olympic gold medalist and Rampone spoke candidly to FIFA.com about how she never thought she’d make it this far and why she’s desperate to win back a trophy that’s eluded the Americans since 1999. The foraging central defender, who turns 40 next summer, also touched on some of her most memorable moments in a sparkling career that spans nearly two decades at the top of the women’s game.

FIFA.com: **When you made your first appearance, way back in the last century, did you ever dream you’d still be in the US team to mark a 300th cap?** Christie Rampone: No way. I’m surprised I’ve been able to sustain it and I can’t believe I’m still here. I’ve been through so many four-year cycles. Each time a new one starts, it seems like the road is going to be too long or too hard. There’s a lot of work involved. If you told me at the start I’d play 300 times for this team, I’d have laughed.**

Only one player in history, man or woman, has more caps than you: your former teammate Kristine Lilly. Is there a chance you might catch up to her at 352? That number seems totally unattainable. I don’t think I’ve got it in me.

So are you aiming at next year’s Women’s World Cup as your swansong? I’d like to finish off my career winning another World Cup. That would be ideal. I wouldn’t say, definitely, I’ve made up my mind about it, but it’s coming out of my mouth more and more these days. I’m not 100-per cent sold on the idea of retiring after next year’s World Cup, but it seems to make sense.

At 39, you’re the only player left in the team who lifted the World Cup in ‘99. How important is it for the Stars and Stripes to take the title back after such a long drought? Very important. It’s been a long time since 1999. We need to pay attention to the details. Our team gets stronger every year, but so do the other teams in the world. We need to hope we peak at the right time and play the best soccer we can.

Can we talk about coach Jill Ellis? She’s new to the job. How has she settled in? We build from the top down off the personality of the coach. The coach is the leader. Everything begins there and you hope that it trickles down into the team. You have to build fitness and community and then you need to work at playing the kind of soccer you want to play. Then you can hold people in the team accountable to a standard.

Where would you say the team is right now in that process? We’re not where we should be for a World Cup final, but we’re starting to understand the philosophy of our coach. Also, you learn from all of your mistakes and it takes time to get it all clicking. It’s our job to hear the coach’s voice and understand it.

Has the new coach brought a new philosophy? She wants to open up the field. She’s more demanding of the defenders to come out with a controlled ball. She wants us to have more touches and to create more space to move into offensively. She wants us to work the ball up the field and not just bang it up to Abby . It keeps our minds working. It’s fresh and new. We don’t want to do the same things over and over.

It seems like the approach is a little more subtle, maybe like Japan – the team that beat you in the last World Cup final in Germany in 2011? We’re trying to combine more. To play a little more soccer and use good vision; to know when we’re in a good position to attack. We want to have a lot of options, to be more varied in the way we play the game.

Are other teams in the world, powerful teams like Germany and Japan, forcing changes in the way the US women play? Teams are getting stronger and we have to adapt. You can’t just get away with a moment of individual brilliance here and there. You need to play with 11 players on both sides of the ball. Our goalkeeper isn’t just there to save shots now; she comes into the play. The game has advanced.

What is the major advancement? Look at Japan and what they’re doing with their technique and the short passing game. You can’t really stretch them out; they stay compact.

What’s the one, single memory that sticks out in your mind as a highlight of your 17-year career with the national team? The moment I look back on is 2008. We were going into the Olympics in Beijing and Abby broke her leg. We were devastated. We didn’t know what direction we would go in. We lost our first game and the media, everybody really, turned on us. But we bounced back and had a great tournament. It was amazing. We stayed committed and we stuck together. It wasn’t always pretty, but we had the unity we needed to win. All of our training came out in that tournament. We proved our detractors wrong. New players stepped up for the ones that fell along they way. That’s what this team is about.

Is there a player that’s given you the hardest time, a striker you just couldn’t nail down?** Going up against Abby is the biggest challenge – in the league (NWSL) and also in US training. Her strengths are my weaknesses. She takes me out of my comfort zone. Her aerial game is amazing, and her timing is unbelievable. She keeps me on my toes.

You had a brief taste of coaching when you stepped in as player-coach for Sky Blue FC in 2009. How was it, and do you think this could be a future career for you? I never thought coaching would be right for me until I was forced into it. But it was awesome. The team was so respectful and they embraced me. That helped a lot. Being player-coach is a little easier too, because you’re in it with them and you can feel the tempo. A lot of it was new to me, like watching game films and interpreting what needed to be done and then implementing it. That was a special feeling: Seeing your stuff work.**

What can fans expect from the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup? The women’s game is excelling. Federations are putting money and energy into boosting it. I think this could be even bigger than the last World Cup in Germany, especially with all the buzz from the men’s tournament in Brazil this year.

America was abuzz with soccer fever this summer, with the men’s team performing well in Brazil. Can the women keep that good feeling going back home?** Brazil was amazing. The spirit, the passion and the fans were out in force everywhere. All the games are televised and it’s more accessible than it’s ever been. The buzz is huge and we can sense it, and we want to help keep it going.