MANAUS, Brazil — Megan Rapinoe’s return is coming at just the right time for the United States.
The U.S. women have advanced to the Olympic quarterfinals; the three-time defending champions will play Sweden on Friday in Brasilia.
Rapinoe, who had major surgery on her right knee last December, made her first start of the year on Tuesday night against Colombia in Manaus, one of several cities across Brazil that are hosting the soccer tournament.
The wily winger lasted 33 minutes in the heat and humidity of the Amazon before she was subbed out for 18-year-old Mallory Pugh. Catalina Usme scored a pair of goals, including the last-minute equalizer to pull the Colombians into a 2-2 draw.
“For Megan, it was just important — she’s ahead of schedule — to see her out there, let her run around a little bit,” coach Jill Ellis said. “I was pleased. I thought she did great. There’s no residual from the injury. She’s out there playing and I thought she did well.
“Her set pieces and crosses are massive for us, and she got to take those in a live game rather than training which hopefully bolsters her confidence.”
Playing in her second Olympics, Rapinoe said she was understandably a bit rusty. The more important thing was that the United States finished atop its group heading into the knockout stage — although the team admittedly would have liked to finish out group play with a win rather than a draw.
“Of course we always want to win everything. We’re a super competitive bunch,” Rapinoe said. “But ultimately we know it’s bigger than that. First out of the group, headed to Brasilia, that was our main goal. We just needed a tie out of it.”
Rapinoe, 31, hadn’t played with the team since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during a training session in Hawaii before a scheduled World Cup victory tour match in December.
She had twice torn the ACL in her left knee while at the University of Portland. It can sometimes take up to a year to recover from the surgery, meaning that Rapinoe’s availability for the Olympics was initially in doubt.
But two months ago the good-humored midfielder posted to social media: “My Olympic dream is still alive! This blonde ain’t gone!”
Rapinoe, who also plays for the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League, has been with the senior national team since 2006.
At the 2012 London Games she had three goals and four assists for the champions.
She scored a pair of goals in the opening match for the United States at last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada and the Americans went on to win the game’s most prestigious tournament with a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final.
Tuesday night’s match was her 114th with the team. Her start was somewhat a surprise, because she was not expected to play before the quarterfinals.
Before the tournament started, she spoke about how the Olympics would not be a typical tournament for her, and she was comfortable with that.
“Obviously I’m not going to be a 90-minute player in this tournament,” she said. “I’ll have to work my way back in. I think that getting into the knockout round I’ll be able to come off the bench and make an impact that way, being more of a role player.”
The United States is vying for its fourth straight gold medal in Brazil. The team also seeks to become the first to win an Olympics after winning a World Cup.
Rapinoe, and the rest of the Americans, were mostly unconcerned about the result against Colombia, which was just the second draw the United States had conceded this year. Colombia had never before scored against the U.S.
“I think it’s fine. I mean obviously this group is super experienced and we understand that its aa bigger picture,” Rapinoe said. “Ultimately we accomplished our goal that we wanted, which was to finish atop of our group.”