When Megan Rapinoe’s cleats take the field at Snapdragon Stadium for the NWSL championship on Saturday, it will mark her final appearance in her career.
If OL Reign, the team she has been a part of for 11 years, wins the championship in San Diego, she will finally achieve the one major trophy that has eluded her.
Earlier this year, the 38-year-old made a public announcement about her plan to retire. However, her final international tournament did not go as expected. The US team was eliminated in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup, marking their worst performance in a tournament. Despite this disappointment, Rapinoe has received numerous tributes, aside from certain segments of a divided America. Most of the accolades have centered on her impact off the field, where she has been a vocal supporter for LGBTQ+ rights, social justice, and equal pay in the sport of soccer.
Rapinoe has emphasized the same aspects herself. Prior to her last regular season game at Lumen Field in Seattle in October, she stated to the media, “I am proud of my career and my accomplishments on the field. But I am also proud of all the work I have done off the field and how my career has influenced and inspired others, challenged societal norms, and allowed individuals to see themselves in a more complete manner.”
Although advocacy has played a significant role in her career and will likely be a prominent aspect of her induction into the US Soccer Hall of Fame, it would be negligent not to evaluate Rapinoe’s performance with the ball, facing opponents and time pressure.
Can we say that Rapinoe was the best player in USWNT history solely based on her performance on the field? Most likely not. She did not have the same length of career as Kristine Lilly, who earned 354 caps for the US in 23 years. Nor did she score as many goals as Abby Wambach, who has 184 to her name. And while she possesses technical skill, she may not be on the same level as players like Mia Hamm, Carli Lloyd, or Rose Lavelle. Some may compare her to David Beckham, who also had impressive set-piece abilities and a talent for stepping up in important moments, but whose fame sometimes overshadowed his actual talent.
That’s not to say she wasn’t an outstanding player. In many ways, Rapinoe the footballer mirrored Rapinoe the advocate: she was unflappable. The one aberration came in her final competitive game for the US, when she missed her spot-kick in the Americans’ penalty shootout loss to Sweden. Other than that Rapinoe had a quality legendary athletes often exude: a confidence and drive to win that bordered on the obsessive. A confidence that seemed to give her the ability to will her team to victory.
Nowhere was that better exemplified than in that cross in extra-time of the USWNT’s 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. Trailing to As Canarinhas with time running out, Rapinoe raced down the left wing, and launched a perfectly placed ball on to Abby Wambach’s head to send the game to penalties. The US went on to reach the final, where they lost to Japan. Not bad for her first World Cup. Four years later, Rapinoe was again integral to her team’s effort.
In the first game of the Americans, playing against Australia, some thought the Matildas might beat the US. However, Rapinoe had a strong start and scored two goals, while also helping Christen Press score another goal, leading to a decisive 3-1 win. These goals showcased her talent, as she won the ball for her first goal, skillfully maneuvered past multiple defenders, and then scored in the top right corner. For her second goal, she made a powerful run from the left wing, an area where she often excelled, and placed a shot past the goalkeeper. This victory set the tone for their eventual back-to-back World Cup wins.
In 2019, the World Cup marked Rapinoe’s most successful moment as a player. She excelled under pressure both on and off the field. As the defending champions, her team was embroiled in a contentious equal pay lawsuit with their own federation. Additionally, Rapinoe found herself in a dispute with then US president Donald Trump, who took to social media to criticize her after she expressed her opinions on him. One tweet even suggested, “Megan should focus on winning first before speaking!” And win she did: scoring six goals, she led her team to victory and was named the top scorer and best player of the 2019 World Cup.
The goals were scored just in time and seemed destined to happen, much like the others. They were often scored from set pieces, a specialty of Rapinoe’s. In the same year, she was awarded the Ballon d’Or Féminin, given to the top player in the world. She also earned a gold medal with the US team at the 2012 Olympics, adding to her impressive record of 203 appearances, 63 goals, and 73 assists while representing the US.
However, her influence on the domestic US soccer scene within the National Women’s Soccer League is significant, invaluable, and a direct result of her success as an international superstar. Her rise to fame coincided with the development of the NWSL and played a key role in driving the league’s third attempt at establishing professional women’s soccer in the US from a shaky beginning to a stable and promising future.
The 11th season of NWSL has set new records in various categories, such as ticket sales, attendance, viewership, and investment. Back in 2015, when Rapinoe won her first World Cup, the league had an average of 5,000 fans per game. However, by 2023, that number has doubled to over 10,000. Recently, CBS Sports, ESPN, Prime Video, and Scripps Sports revealed a multi-year agreement that is estimated to be worth $240 million for broadcasting NWSL games on their platforms. A significant part of the league’s success can be attributed to players like Rapinoe.
As proof of her significant impact on this progress, Rapinoe’s last home game of the regular season set a new record for the NWSL, attracting 34,130 fans to the stands in Seattle in October.
There is a final objective to be achieved. Rapinoe has been instrumental in leading OL Reign to win three Supporters Shield titles, given to the team with the top record in the regular season, but they have never won a championship, which is awarded to the playoff winner. A victorious last trophy could help alleviate the heartbreaking memories of this year’s World Cup.
On Saturday, Reign’s rivals will be Gotham FC, which poses a formidable challenge. They are also vying for their first NWSL championship and will be saying goodbye to their own retiring star: Ali Krieger, who previously won two World Cups with Rapinoe.
Following a series of impressive accomplishments, fans can anticipate one final performance.