Saturday in New Zealand marks the beginning of the end for Megan Rapinoe. The United States forward announced earlier in July that this World Cup, her fourth, will also be her last. She will retire later this year after playing out the National Women’s Soccer League season with her club, OL Reign.
As with just about everything Rapinoe has done on and off the field in her glittering career, she is going out her way, on her terms.
“I’m just grateful to be able to do it in this way,” Rapinoe said. “I understand that it is incredibly rare for athletes of any stature to be able to go out in their own way, on their own terms, at the time that they want, in a way that feels really peaceful and settled for them.”
Regardless of what happens over the next month, as Rapinoe and Co aim to win an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup, the 38-year-old will walk away as one of the all-time greats in a program littered with them.
She may also be the most famous women’s player in history thanks to her advocacy off the field. Rapinoe is a steadfast fighter for equality and inclusion, which has inspired many and drawn the ire of others.
As teammate Kelley O’Hara said this week while holding back tears: “She’s one of a kind. There’s never been one like her, there’s probably never going to be one close to her.”
Rapinoe reached a level of global fame four years ago when, with her unmistakable purple-pink hair, she led the USA’s campaign at the 2019 World Cup, scoring six goals while winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. That tournament marked an explosion of the team’s fame and Rapinoe’s celebrity, but the flame had been lit years earlier.
In 2011, with the US trailing Brazil in the 122nd minute of the World Cup quarter-final, Rapinoe hit a desperate cross to the back post that found the head of Abby Wambach for the equalizer. The moment was quintessential, never-say-die USWNT attitude – and was later voted the greatest Women’s World Cup goal of all time. The Americans eventually advanced to the final, where they lost to Japan.
Even before that match, without the comfort of having established her place on the team, Rapinoe was a bold personality. After scoring against Colombia in the group stage, she ran to one of the on-field microphones, picked it up and tapped it, and belted out a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.
One year later, Rapinoe helped the US win a third consecutive Olympic gold medal. Among her feats was an Olimpico – a goal straight from a corner kick – in the controversial extra-time win over Canada in the semi-final. Rapinoe scored another Olimpico at the Tokyo Games in 2021, a repeat trick which US Soccer believes has never been replicated at that level.
In between, she won the 2015 World Cup and refined her game with the Reign in Seattle. Her style of play was, and is, defined by audacity and ingenuity, from Olimpicos and unlikely free kicks (she surprised France with a near-post effort in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final) to quick throw-ins that produce assists. She is the type of player who will try anything once … and nobody will question it.
Perhaps more famously, Rapinoe has also left her mark off the field. She is one of the world’s most famous out gay athletes, and fights fiercely for the LGBTQ+ community. She has also raised issues around race: in 2016, she knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who did the same at the time in protest of social injustices. US Soccer proceeded to drop her from the team and create a rule (which was soon repealed) requiring all players to stand for the national anthem – “White people were mad. Whew, were they mad!” she later wrote in her memoir.
Then came 2019, when her life forever changed. With the team already mired in a bitter, high-profile equal-pay lawsuit with their own federation, Rapinoe said in an interview – which was held for release until the World Cup – “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” She meant if the team won the World Cup, and she said it as a direct shot at then-US president Donald Trump.
Trump took to Twitter to say, “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!”. Trump claimed Rapinoe was disrespecting the country, and she became the face of a now polarizing US team that stood for inclusion, against a sizable group of conservatives. The US did win, of course, with Rapinoe striking an arms-extended pose after each of her six goals in the tournament.
No matter how heavy the topic or serious the moment, Rapinoe kept things light. She never took herself too seriously.
“I know that the world sees the Megan Rapinoe that the world sees, but we get to see her up close and personal,” O’Hara said. “Obviously, the ‘Pinoe’ that the world sees is an incredible person and human, and that is her also up close and personal. She brings a sense of humor and lightness but [also] intensity and empathy.”
Retirement has been in Rapinoe’s mind ever since that World Cup triumph in Lyon four years ago. Everything she did was scrutinized and she felt stuck in the hamster wheel of professional sports. Emotionally, spiritually and physically, she was taxed. Ongoing injuries further limited her production and stripped her of her joy in the game.
Now, on a team that has been gutted and remodeled over the past 18 months, Rapinoe is part of the supporting cast. She will mostly come off the bench with the expectation that she can change games in the final minutes with that usual flair and audacity, whether it be another pinpoint cross or a perfect free-kick. Starting and starring roles? Those are unlikely, but she is fine with that.
She accepted as much last year when she returned to the team for World Cup qualifying after a hiatus. The team had transitioned to a new generation – 14 of the 23 players on the US roster this month are at their first World Cup – and Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson had taken over as the clear, in-form starters on the wings of the USA’s 4-3-3 formation.
Rapinoe had become a mentor, a player-coach. If that’s what it takes to win another World Cup, that’s fine with her.
“Rosters are not a compilation just of, go pick the best players and hope for the best,” Rapinoe said last year upon her return to the team. “It’s about constructing an organism that works together on and off the field, that works not necessarily harmoniously all the time, but that the right pieces fit for certain reasons and for reasons most people don’t understand.”
The USA are among the favorites once again, but they are not without considerable questions, driven by injuries (including Swanson) and tactical uncertainty. If they are to win another World Cup, they will do so largely on the backs of a new, emerging generation, from Smith up top to Naomi Girma in defense.
Rapinoe will not be front and center as she was four years ago. But she’ll be integral to whatever the team does, rallying the team in huddles and locker rooms and, potentially, making one last game-changing play.