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2015 World Cup brings Christie Rampone's career full circle

Sky Blue FC captain ready for her fifth and final World Cup

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Very few of us can wrap up a career neatly in a bow. To create a symmetry that lets us end the way it began.

But Point Pleasant's Christie Rampone, captain of the US National Team and Sky Blue FC of the National Women's Soccer League, has that chance.

Tonight, Rampone's international soccer career will come just about full circle in Winnipeg as the US Women's National Team faces Australia in search of its third overall Women's World Cup.

It'll mark about 18 years since Rampone earned her first cap and two weeks shy of 16 years that women's soccer exploded into America's conscious with that magical World Cup victory in the US. It was 1999 - a summer defined by sellout crowds at major league venues, a Clinton in the White House and a penalty kick shootout followed by the most celebrated shirt-removal of all time.

Rampone - who was Pearce then - spent that summer on  the bench, watching Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly and the rest win the country's second Women's World Cup. Her biggest job was coloring the hair of fellow New Jersey native Saskia Webber. Those two were the only ones who did not see a minute of playing time in the 1999 tournament.

Rampone's story has been told more than a few times in recent weeks. She was a three-sport athlete playing basketball, lacrosse, and soccer at Monmouth College (now University), a small college hardly anyone ever heard of.  Hardly anyone heard of Rampone back then, either. Expect if you were from the Jersey Shore.

Those who followed high school sports considered her one of the finest all-around athletes ever to come out of the Shore. A four-sport athlete at Point Boro High School, she led the Shore Conference in scoring her senior year in three different sports - field hockey, soccer and basketball.

Recruited by a slew of colleges - including the University of North Carolina - she chose Monmouth to be close to home and to continue playing with her sister Wendi.

It was at Monmouth where she caught the eye of Tony DiCicco, the US National Team coach, in 1997. She got called to camp and went from Monmouth to the US National Team camp where she trained with the Mount Rushmore of women's soccer - Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and the rest of the pioneers of women's soccer. Hamm was one of her first roommates in camp.

"It was hard to believe," she said. "All of a sudden, I'm there with players I read about or watched on TV. The second day there they made me a defender. And everyone was very helpful. The older players treated me great. I never forgot that."

She gradually saw her playing time increase and quickly became a fixture on the backline of the National Team.

Her career has been shaped by her athletic ability, her fitness and now her leadership.  She's been dubbed Captain America and the Nation's #1 Soccer Mom. She's been a steady influence on the United States backline - playing in the next three World Cups and four Olympics.

She has three Olympic gold medals and a silver. She was a member of the World Cup runners up in 2011 and played on the 2003 and 2007 sides. In the U.S., she's been part of all three pro leagues - with the New York Power in the WUSA and with the Sky Blue FC in the WPS and now the NWSL. She was player-coach of Sky Blue in their inaugural season and coached/played them to the league title - while she was pregnant.

Her 306 caps are the most of any active player - man or woman.  She is second all-time to Lilly's 352 caps. And she is the last active US player from the 1999 team.

She went from a shy, almost introverted teenager - a reluctant hero who used her sister Wendi as her spokesperson - to become Captain America and spokesperson for a New Jersey-based hospital system.

Rampone will become the fifth woman to have played in five World Cups with Lilly, Brazil's Formiga, Germany's Birgit Prinz and Japan's Homare Sawa. Formiga and Sawa are expected to play in their sixth this year.

But back to the full circle. Rampone will celebrate her 40th birthday during the tournament and she will start it on the bench, just like in 1999. She's still Captain America - the iron woman who is the third most capped player in history. She's still the same role model to all the moms out there - a true soccer mom who got her fitness work in during Memorial Day weekend at a central Pennsylvania hotel where her daughter was playing  in a youth tournament.

But even she can see the light dimming at the end of the tunnel. Injuries are beginning to catch up to her, not in a major way but the nagging variety. A collision with fellow Garden Stater Carli Lloyd in training a month ago left her knee a little sore and she was careful in the lead up games to the Cup with the Sky Blue.

"It's fine,'' she said, after an April match with Houston at Rutgers University. "I'm taking it a little easy just to be safe but it's nothing to worry about.  I should be good to go."

And she will. But she won't be a starter when the United States faces Australia. Julie Johnston will be in her familiar place in central defense. Rampone will now be coming off the bench as a strategic substitute; called on for her savvy and experience to close out the game.

The intangibles are also there for Rampone. She's a cheerleader, the respected elder stateswoman; one who has earned the respect for her steadiness. USWNT coach Jill Ellis calls her leadership and experience something that will be an integral part of the American side as they attempt to win their first Women's World Cup since the historic 1999 victory.

To complete the circle, though, she needs something more: A championship.

"That's the biggest motivation," she said after a recent Sky Blue FC match. "After 2011 (a penalty kick shootout loss to Japan in the final), it was heartbreaking. It's a lot of work to get back and I know this is my last World Cup. So winning it is my main motivation."

That would bring it back full circle - a full generation. From Akers to Wambach to Morgan. From bench to bench. But even then, it won't be totally over.

"I am looking forward to coming back after the World Cup and have a successful season here  (with Sky Blue)," she said. "We have a lot of younger players and I want that to share my experience with them. I enjoy being the older veteran who can help younger players. I don't forget the veterans who helped me."

Of course even with a World Cup championship, there's a chance her international career will go on - at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Rampone hasn't announced one way or another but hasn't definitely ruled out another year of training and international play.

And there would go the symmetry.