Megan Rapinoe ended her international career in familiar fashion: victorious and mischievous.
The star and her USA teammates defeated South Africa 2-0 in a friendly at Soldier Field in Chicago. Though Rapinoe will play a few more games for her club team, OL Reign, Sunday marked her last with the US and was the final stanza in a near two-decade career in which she won 203 caps, two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal.
After their early exit from this summer’s World Cup, the US team rallied for the 38-year-old Rapinoe’s retirement. The crowd erupted when, in the first few minutes of the second half, Rapinoe’s corner kick found Emily Sonnett, who scored with a header. The assist was a fitting finale for Rapinoe, known for her prowess from set pieces. The first goal of the match was a symbolic passing of the torch to the next generation of US women’s players as 21-year-old Trinity Rodman scored from an assist from Alex Morgan, Rapinoe’s longtime USWNT teammate
“I feel like I think that’s why I have such peace about moving on,” Rapinoe said in a Saturday press conference. “I look at players like Soph Smith or Naomi [Girma], Trin [Trinity Rodman], the squad is in very, very good hands if those are the ones that are moving forward.”
It was a full circle moment for Rapinoe in Chicago, home to the headquarters of US Soccer, the organization she once fought tooth and nail in her team’s long battle for equal pay. The fight defined her more than any of her achievements on the field, something Rapinoe herself has pointed out during her farewell tour.
“It says a lot about us that everything on the field I feel pales in comparison to what we’ve achieved off the field,” Rapinoe said, highlighting the equal pay lawsuit. “But I think even in the years prior to that, being so vocal about racial justice and gay rights and just feeling like the team really stepped into a new era of itself and took upon itself to be so much more than what we were on the field.”
For the last 30 years women’s soccer has become part of America’s sporting landscape, gaining traction with each World Cup win and Olympic victory. But it also took individual players to elevate the sport. Each era has claimed its own; the 90s marked the golden age of Mia Hamm and the early aughts hailed the likes of Abby Wambach. Then came Rapinoe, who not only dazzled fans with her soccer prowess but also brought her full identity to the game. After the 2011 World Cup and before heading to the 2012 Olympics, Rapinoe came out as gay.
“Just the reaction that I got, whether that was people coming up to me and saying how much that meant to them or gave them space to come out, I think I realized right then, as the popularity of the team started to grow, that people came to see us not just for what we were doing on the field, but they came to see themselves in us,” Rapinoe said on Saturday. “So how could we use that? How could we use the growing platform to fight for ourselves, but also to fight for other people?”
Rapinoe didn’t merely use her platform to fight for social causes that benefited her identity as a queer woman. In 2016, she became one of the first white athletes to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who started the demonstration as a protest against police brutality in America. It is a stand that still resonates with Rapinoe’s fans.
“For me as a Black woman, just to know she’s an ally and say, ‘I think this is a big deal, enough to put my career on the line,’” said Chicago resident Valerie Moore, who attended Sunday’s game. “And kneel at a time when not really a lot of people were doing it in support of Colin Kaepernick. For me, that was just a huge, huge, huge deal as a Black woman.”
Outside Soldier Field, the mood before the game felt equal parts pre-game party and grade-school birthday bash as crowds decked in patriotic red, white and blue kicked balls to a soundtrack of Dua Lipa and Britney Spears. Women, men, as well as scores of children, sported Rapinoe’s No 15 jersey.
“It’s a really beautiful thing to look out and see little Black girls and little trans kids and boys with our jerseys on,” Rapinoe said. “I think that’s something that all of us are really proud of and all of us – especially in our generation – know the impact that we’ve made. And we know that it’s a lot different now than when we started.”
When asked what they loved about Rapinoe, many children at Sunday’s game pointed to her character rather than her skills.
“She’s brave,” said 11-year-old Levin Marquardt of Wisconsin. “I feel like not a lot of people share their feelings when they’re playing soccer, they just play.”
Still others relish the attitude that Rapinoe and her teammates brought to the World Cup. Illinois resident Amelia Evey, 10, has watched USA’s semi-final victory over England at the 2019 tournament on repeat. Her favorite part of her room is a poster of Morgan.
“I know everything,” Evey said of the 2019 game. “I also like when Alex Morgan sips the tea.”
Morgan’s tea sipping, a cheeky gesture after scoring against England in 2019, and Rapinoe’s famous pose after scoring against France in the previous game, are part of what set this era of USWNT stars apart from their predecessors. Rapinoe held on to that spirit in her final moments on the field. In her post-game ceremony, someone handed her the mic. Rapinoe, known for her candor, looked at them with a grin.
“You might regret it,” she said, with a wink.
But apart from some notable political enemies, few will regret Rapinoe having her say. Her outspokenness on equal pay, gay rights and racial justice were unencumbered by the moral ambiguities we assign ourselves in adulthood. And with hard work and her hair dyed nearly every color of the rainbow, she accomplished what so many of us grow out of once we wise up: she followed her dreams.