Whether she was advocating for equal pay and racial justice or just scoring a rare goal off a corner kick, Megan Rapinoe was always unabashedly authentic during her soccer career.
As she prepares to step away, the 38-year old Rapinoe is showing a more vulnerable side, too.
Rapinoe sobbed following the U.S. loss to Sweden at this summer’s Women’s World Cup, knowing it would be her final tournament with the national team. She was emotional again last weekend, playing her final rivalry match between her NWSL team, OL Reign, and the Portland Thorns.
“I’ve just loved every moment of my career,” she said through tears at the World Cup last month in Australia. “I’ll just miss it to death, but it also feels like the right time. And that’s OK.”
On Sunday, Rapinoe will play her final game in a U.S. jersey when the United States faces South Africa at Chicago’s Soldier Field at 5:30 p.m. EDT on TNT. She’ll have a few more regular-season games for the Reign, including a send-off match for local fans in Seattle on Oct. 6.
“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 intensity and empathy, and just — she is one of a kind,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “There’s never been one like her. There’s probably never going to be one close to her.”
Portland was where it all started for Rapinoe. As a freshman at the University of Portland, she helped lead the Pilots to the 2005 national title.
Canadian Christine Sinclair, who also played for the Portland Pilots, said she and Rapinoe sort of grew up together, navigating college before competing on opposing national teams and professional clubs.
“I’ve spent pretty much my entire career competing against her ever since college, whether it’s for Canada or here in Portland. I have so much respect for her. We’re definitely two different types of people, but what she’s done for the game, I think she’s helped inspire an entire generation of young soccer fans,” Sinclair said.
Rapinoe went on to win a pair of World Cups and both gold and bronze medals at the Olympics. In just over 200 appearances for the United States since her debut in 2006, she has scored 63 goals. She’s scored two goals directly from corner kicks at the Olympics.
At the 2019 World Cup in France, Rapinoe scored six goals, including a penalty in the final against the Netherlands. With her lavender hair, her victory pose, arms outstretched, became one of the iconic images of the dominant U.S. run.
She claimed the tournament’s Golden Boot and the Golden Ball for the best overall player, and later that year was named the FIFA Best women’s player and won the prestigious Ballon d’Or.
“I don’t think there’s enough words to talk about Megan and her impact on this sport,” fellow forward Lynn Williams said. “From equality to human rights, the list goes on and on and on. So that’s going to sting a little bit, to not see her on this team and wearing the crest anymore.”
With the Reign, Rapinoe is one of just five players who have spent their entire career in the NWSL playing for just one club.
But for all of her accomplishments in the game, she is probably just as well known for her off-the-field advocacy and activism.
Rapinoe led her team’s long fight for equal pay with their men’s national team, which started with an EEOC complaint back in 2016. It was finally resolved last year, when both teams reached contracts with U.S. Soccer that paid them equally and split tournament prize money.
Among prominent athletes to publicly come out, Rapinoe has been outspoken about LGBTQ issues, including transgender rights.
At the 2019 World Cup, there was controversy when an old video surfaced of her saying she wouldn’t visit the White House if the team won the tournament. It attracted former President Donald Trump’s attention and he tweeted: “Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team.”
The team didn’t go to the White House after winning the title — but got a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
“She’s just a big personality both on and off the pitch,” former coach Jill Ellis said. “And I think she honestly thrives in these moments.”
In 2016, Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. He knelt during the anthem to call attention to racial inequality.
U.S. Soccer responded by adopting a rule that players must stand for anthems, which was rescinded in 2021.
The reality of age finally caught up with Rapinoe this summer at the World Cup. She was no longer a full-time starter and appeared a step slower.
In the Round of 16 against Sweden, the match went to penalties after a scoreless draw and Rapinoe uncharacteristically missed a penalty kick — just the second missed PK of her career. It was the first time the Americans had failed to reach the semifinals of soccer’s premier tournament.
While disappointed in the moment, Rapinoe didn’t lose sight of the big picture.
“I feel so lucky and so grateful to play as long as I have and been on as many successful teams as I have, and be a part of a very special generation that has done so much on and off the field,” Rapinoe said. “It would be hard to feel disappointed in any type of way.”
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