Megan Rapinoe's Storybook Career: In Her Own Words
Megan Rapinoe will play her last regular-season soccer game today.
Read that, and reflect on it for a second. Depending on how her team, OL Reign, fare in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Decision Day – the last day of the season – this may be the last time the public ever sees her play.
At 38 years old and 17 years into her professional career, it seems impossible to break down Rapinoe’s legacy and history in the game into anything that even approaches digestible. An absolute legend of the game, her mark will be felt for years and years, both at the national team and club levels, and both on and off the pitch. Her story feels like a quintessential American dream, something worthy of a movie. Let’s take it piece by piece:
Her career at the highest level of soccer started early, with her first senior U.S. women’s national team call-up in July of 2006. This was only the summer after her freshman year of college at the University of Portland. She scored her first international goal later that year, in October. Here’s what she had to say then regarding finding her place on the national team:
“I just get, like, nervous in front of people I don’t know, and there’s a lot of veterans… just getting to know players and kind of getting comfortable and kind of allowing myself to open up just takes a little bit of time.”
Rapinoe then missed two years of both college and international play as a result of two consecutive ACL tears. She wasn’t back in the fold until the 2009 Algarve Cup, the beginning of the road to the 2011 World Cup. On getting the call for January camp from then-coach Pia Sundhage after such an extended hiatus, she said:
“I felt very ready. I didn’t feel like that nervous young kid who is just getting a shot… I did always feel I would have the opportunity to be back if I was healthy. I just didn’t know it would come this soon.”
In 2009, when Rapinoe’s professional club career began, Women’s Professional Soccer was the U.S.' premier domestic league. It was the predecessor of the NWSL, and Rapinoe was the second overall pick in their inaugural draft. She was selected by the Chicago Red Stars, and played two seasons with them to begin her WPS career before the team shut down. Consequently, she played elsewhere in the league with the Philadelphia Independence and magicJack, which she was a member of until the league was terminated in 2012.
A Bleacher Report article, part of a preview series on the Red Stars roster, stated in 2009 that Rapinoe’s dreams to "travel a lot, teach or volunteer in the third world, and make as much of a difference in the world as she has already made and is certain to make on the soccer pitch before her career is over.”
Spotlight Turns On
After all of these club performances, Rapinoe earned her spot on the 2011 U.S. Women’s World Cup team, to compete for the trophy in Germany. This was her first major senior international tournament.
It is also the location of one of her most famous career moments: “The Cross,” or her cross to Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute of the quarterfinal against Brazil. With around 90 seconds left of the game and the U.S. 2-1 down, it looked as if it would be their earliest-ever exit from a World Cup. But Rapinoe took two touches on a ball from Carli Lloyd to launch it towards Brazil’s goal, where it connected with Abby Wambach’s head. The U.S. won on penalties (one taken and made by Rapinoe herself) and ended up advancing to the final, where they lost to Japan.
Regarding the cross the day after, Rapinoe said:
“I have never hit a cross like that. Normally, I cannot hit the ball that far with my left foot. I don’t even know how I got a hold of it that good…I don’t think I even saw it hit her head. I saw it just go in the back of the net and saw the net shake and I probably just blacked out. I watched the film a little bit today and I did some weird stuff.”
This climax moment drew attention to the national team at a magnitude not seen since the 1999 World Cup. The suspense of the occasion and the mentality of the team to fight back and win that game brought in new fans, which were the catalyst for the wave of support for women’s soccer that stretched through the 2010s.
In 2012, Rapinoe became the first player to score an Olimpico – a goal scored directly off a corner kick – in the Olympics in London, which the U.S. would go on to win. In this same year, Rapinoe came out as gay in an interview with Out magazine. Her taking this step to increase visibility of a marginalized identity was one of the first stages in her advocacy journey.
In the Out magazine article, she said “I feel everyone is really craving [for] people to come out. People want– they need– to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol' U.S. of A."
Her twin, Rachael Rapinoe, said this on the topic: “I think it's incredibly brave to use this talent and platform that she's been blessed with in a positive way, not just on the field, but providing an example of how to treat people off the field as well."
By the time Rapinoe’s stint at France’s Lyon – where she made it to the UEFA Champions League final – ended, the newly formed National Women’s Soccer League was ready for her. She came in halfway through the league's inaugural season to join the Seattle Reign in 2013. Even though she only played half the season, she was the team’s leading goalscorer. The Reign would go on to win the NWSL Shield in 2014 and 2015, finishing as runners-up to the championship in both years.
In 2015, in a press conference directly following Rapinoe’s first professional hat-trick, she said: “That's this club – we love playing here. We love playing in front of this crowd, and we love playing for this club, behind this badge. That means a lot to us and that propels us out on the field.”
She's also had an impact on her teammates, even past leadership on the field. In 2014, Reign and national team teammate Sydney Leroux had this to say: “I always say this – she has this attraction, she brings everyone in, you know. When she talks, everyone wants to listen.”
The World Stage
Next for Rapinoe was the 2015 Women’s World Cup, where she started all six games she was eligible for. The U.S. won that tournament, further advancing the cause of women’s soccer across the world, but especially in the States, given that they brought home a trophy. Rapinoe had reached stardom as a player based on her past national team and club performances and was gaining a public persona. In a feature on her produced for the World Cup, she said:
“Now that I'm in more of a public eye, I guess for me, being authentic just means doing what you want for you. If I’m doing something that’s different, it's because I want to be doing that, whether people are watching or not.”
She also remarked on her sexuality, saying “I feel like I fit into society’s nice construct of an out gay athlete, because I kind of look gay – whatever gay means. I felt like me coming out was not really a big sort of departure from the me that everyone knew anyways.”
In 2016, Rapinoe was the first white athlete to kneel during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice. This action went relatively unopposed in the NWSL, although no other player joined in. However, a few weeks later, when she knelt on the national stage, more people paid attention. U.S. Soccer Federation released a statement saying its players were expected to stand for the anthem. Captain Carli Lloyd called the protest “distracting,” and coach Jill Ellis separately stated that players were expected to stand for the anthem to represent the country. Rapinoe lost her starting spot for the next game, and then was told not to dress for the next two. When the next national team camp rolled around, she wasn’t called up. She ended up not playing for the rest of the year.
After kneeling at a NWSL game for the first time, she said “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”
Upon receiving backlash for kneeling with the USWNT, she wrote in a Players’ Tribune article: “When I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom — because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country.”
For the next few years, things progressed as normal. The buzz around the national team died down in the space between major tournaments, and the team rebuilt for the 2019 World Cup. In the months leading up to the tournament, the spotlight returned for reasons other than gameplay; the focus of the country seemed to be on the USWNT’s emerging lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging unequal pay and treatment.
Rapinoe was one of the equal pay movement’s strongest supporters from the beginning, being one of five players to formally file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. Through the 2019 lawsuit, Rapinoe’s overall role as a vocal leader on the team led to her, along with Alex Morgan, being a face of the movement. In an interview with ABC News in March of 2019, she said:
“I think the big picture, ultimately, is just giving that message that you should fight for what you believe in. You should fight for what you feel you’ve earned and never give up. it is difficult at times, but we know, in our hearts, and we know, with the facts that we have, that we’re on the right side of this…For us, it’s not only about leaving our sport in a better place…but just in general, inspiring women around the world. They have an ally in us, we are with them, we support them, and we will continue this fight as long as we need to.”
In the Public Eye
Directly preceding the World Cup in 2019, Rapinoe came under fire for a video clip that went viral from an interview she did with Eight by Eight magazine. In the clip, she said “I’m not going to the f***ing White House,” in response to a question on former President Trump inviting the USWNT if they won. Ahead of the quarter-finals, Trump responded with a Tweet thread, saying in part that “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!”
This was the environment surrounding Rapinoe and the team as they entered the elimination stages of the competition.
In the tournament itself, Rapinoe was a stand-out. She was a co-captain of the U.S. side, starting every game she played in, tallying three assists, and scoring six goals across the tournament. For these statistics, she won the Golden Boot, for most goals in the tournament, and the Golden Ball, for best play. One of her six goals was in the final, where the US beat the Netherlands 2-0 to win their fourth World Cup and Rapinoe’s second.
Something that brought recognition to Rapinoe and aided in her rise to the general public’s eye was the manner in which she went about her success on the field. After scoring both goals in the quarterfinal win against France, she ran to the corner of the field and raised both her arms in a victory pose to the crowd, now known as The Pose.
With regard to all of the circumstances surrounding the tournament such as the lawsuit and the spat with Trump, The Pose was unapologetic and proud, said to acknowledge the legacy of women’s soccer. Rapinoe has described it as an embodiment of the phrase, “Are you not entertained?” Following the quarterfinal, Rapinoe remarked to Good Morning America:
“I’m looking at myself as a performer and trying to entertain, and its kind of a funny, playful pose. We’re always looking for good celebrations and this one’s stuck a little bit more.”
And later, for Sports Illustrated: “It was kind of like a ‘F--- you,’ but with a big smile and a s--- eating grin. You are not going to steal any of our joy.”
In the rest of 2019, Rapinoe won the Ballon d’Or, for the best women’s soccer player in the world. She was also named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year – only the fourth woman in the history of the honor to win.
The next on her long list of accolades came in 2022 when President Biden awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’ highest civilian honor. This exemplifies what she has stood for in her playing career building her up to greater causes of advocacy. In a press conference with the USWNT regarding the honor, she had this to say:
“I just see this as a validation of all of the things that I’ve stood for. And not a validation for me, but it’s a validation of LGBTQIA+ rights. it’s a validation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement against the white supremacist power structure that we have. It’s a validation of women’s rights, and of equal pay, and of abortion rights, and of trans rights… That this is the most important thing. And, you know, while of course what I do on the field I’m so proud of, I have loved my playing career that has given me the opportunity to talk about all of these things that really, truly do matter.”
In 2022, she tied for most goals and assists on OL Reign, helping them to win their third NWSL Shield. In 2023, before the World Cup, she announced her plans to retire after the 2023 NWSL season. On her retirement, she said:
“I feel incredibly grateful to have played as long as I have, to be as successful as we’ve been, and to have been a part of a generation of players who undoubtedly left the game better than they found it. To be able to play one last World Cup and one last NWSL season and go out on my own terms is incredibly special.“
The USWNT suffered their earliest exit in history in the World Cup, being eliminated in the round of 16 on penalty kicks to Sweden. Rapinoe was the only U.S. player to miss a penalty. Although it was a low note to end a storied career in international competition, she wasn’t heartbroken over missing the goal. In fact, she let out a small laugh as it flew over the crossbar.
She said: “Honestly, something that has made me so successful in penalty kicks for so long is the acceptance and the realization that I will miss them… But I love taking them. I would take them all the time. I would take that one again. I would pick me to take them.”
She will leave OL Reign as their highest all-time goalscorer, after 10 years in the league. Even more than this, her impact will be felt through her leadership and the mentality that she has left with the team. The strength of their performances from their 2014 and 2015 shields to 2022 show their staying power, and her power within it. Here’s what she said, battling tears, to KING 5 Seattle on playing in the same city for so long:
“I think particularly going through everything I’ve gone through in my career to have like the safety and just like home that I’ve had here has been huge for me.”
All of this leads us here, to the final day of the NWSL regular season. If the odds are in Seattle’s favor, they’ll continue on to the playoffs and Rapinoe’s career will be stretched that small bit farther. If not, it all ends today. OL Reign will clinch a playoff spot with a win and Rapinoe will contribute to that however she can.
The trajectory of her career seems storybook – the making of a legend, rising from being known simply for her on-the-field prowess (see Brazil 2011) to her actions of advocacy (2016) to her overall persona, encapsulating all of these things to create a figure known to a majority of the American public, and loved by many. She will definitively leave the game better than she found it, and some might say even the world. We have not seen the last of her yet, and as wonderful as she has made soccer, it will be even better to see what more she can do after retirement.