NEW YORK — At 36, Christie Rampone is in a place she'd never imagined: leading a talented U.S. national team from the top end of the generation gap.
"For me, it's going out to team dinners and seeing the big style difference between what I'm wearing as a mom to what the young kids are wearing these days," said Rampone, who has two little girls at home and is two years older than any other player on the Americans' World Cup squad.
"Just getting into skinny jeans and different styles that they're bringing on. And the music is always interesting for me, since I'm more into the Disney, having-kids music. I try to act like I know what song it is, and I'm like 'Who sings this?' "
More than 14 years after she made her national team debut, Rampone is the bridge between past and present for women's soccer in the United States, the lone player left from the 1999 World Cup champions who enthralled American fans and energized the sport.
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That makes her the only roster member who knows how it feels to win a World Cup title as she leads the current group into this year's tournament in Germany. The Americans open group play Tuesday against North Korea.
"I would say I never would ever see myself in this situation," Rampone said. "But I'm here."
Growing up in a less specialized athletic era, Rampone was a two-sport star. She also was a starting point guard on the basketball team at Monmouth, a small school that's not exactly a soccer powerhouse.
The defender played in only one game at the 1999 World Cup, but she was able to soak in the lessons from the core of veteran stars on that team — and the atmosphere of packed stadiums rocking through tense games.
Rampone became U.S. captain in 2008. Goalie Hope Solo recalled recently going to her room to talk and have a glass or two of wine. Over the course of the evening, eight other players came in to ask Rampone something.
Solo told her: "I don't know how you do this."
"Christie is the best captain I have played for. Ever," Solo said. "She takes an interest in every player and takes into account what is best for every player. It's not an easy position to be in. Seems like she's always fighting for something for us. It can be incredibly exhausting, and she does it with so much grace and patience."
Rampone would like to play through the 2012 Olympics before retiring. She insists she can bounce back as quickly from a hard practice as younger players do, but veteran Abby Wambach doesn't buy it.
"You're a freak of nature in some ways," Wambach told Rampone.
"She's a phenomenal athlete," Wambach said. "I don't know how she does it, truthfully."
Indeed, Rampone can seem like a bit of a super hero. In 2009, she took over as player-coach for her New Jersey-based Women's Professional Soccer team late in the season with the club clinging to playoff hopes. Rampone led the squad not only to the post-season but to an unlikely championship — while pregnant.
Reece was born 6½ months later in March 2010; Rylie is almost 6. Rampone struggled a bit to lose weight after her younger daughter's birth, but was more prepared for the balancing act the second time around.
She figures playing in the World Cup as the mother of two isn't a big deal. Her role model, former U.S. star Joy Fawcett, did it with three.
"Joy was a mom and playing at the highest level, and how she played the game and the character she has, the way she quietly led, I really looked up to her," said Rampone, the only "soccer mom" on this year's squad. "We all did. Her patience and calmness in all situations, she never seemed to be rattled. She's able to balance everything, with three kids and also performing on the field every day, taking nothing for granted. That's the type of player and woman I aspired to be. Plus, she's definitely the best defender I have ever seen or played with."
One of Rampone's younger teammates may say that about her someday.