Megan Rapinoe departs USWNT with an unparalleled legacy

Megan Rapinoe salutes the fans as she is subbed out during the second half against South Africa at Soldier Field on Sept. 24, 2023 in Chicago. (Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Megan Rapinoe stood front and center, literally, as her U.S. women’s national team legacy began to crystallize. She held a microphone on Sunday night in Chicago. She also held the attention of adoring fans, thousands of whom stuck around after Rapinoe’s final USWNT game. She had five minutes to thank them; five minutes to summarize her titanic impact; five minutes to crack jokes, then say goodbye after 17 peerless years.

And at the heart of her message, from the midfield stripe at Soldier Field, was a two-part statement.

“We have fought so hard on the field, had so much fun, been so successful, doing it underneath all of your guys’ cheers,” she said, punctuating Part 1. And then: “We fought so hard off the field, to continue to create” — and that’s when the cheers crescendoed, then erupted, cutting her off.

Those fans knew, more or less, what Rapinoe was about to say. She’d allude to a career spent advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality, for racial justice and “to continue to create more space for ourselves to be who we are, but hopefully in turn more space for you guys to be who you are,” as she eventually said.

They liked her for who she was with a ball at her feet, or at the penalty spot; but it was everything else — the depth of her character, and the totality of her influence — that inspired their hand-made “Thank You” signs and their heartfelt tears.

As Rapinoe prepared to say goodbye this week — as emotions welled and tributes rolled in — many have attempted to encapsulate her legacy. At its core is the progress made throughout women’s soccer; up for debate was how, exactly, Rapinoe had contributed to that progress. The very first question of her final USWNT news conference asked her to compare her on- and off-field accomplishments. Sunday’s ovation seemed to elevate the latter. Most glowing retrospectives have singled out that off-field legacy, as if to divide her career into two distinct buckets.

But what made Rapinoe unique is the degree to which those two legacies were intertwined. In fact, they were inseparable.

Her talent built the platform on which she changed the world.

And her activism, in a way, fueled her greatest soccer triumph.

The assist that changed everything

“This platform, obviously, was built long before I got here,” Rapinoe said Saturday, but as she prepared for her first of four World Cups back in 2011, the USWNT still performed on a side stage. Less than 6,000 people attended their send-off game. Less than 2 million people watched each of their World Cup group games. Only a half-dozen reporters followed them through Germany. And in the waning seconds of their quarterfinal against Brazil, down 2-1 in stoppage time of extra time, a frightening thought flickered in Rapinoe’s mind.

“F***,” she recently recalled thinking in that moment. “We’re gonna be the worst team ever in the history of the U.S. women’s national team.”

So she picked up her head, and sent a majestic left-footed cross toward Abby Wambach.

Wambach scored, and everything changed.

“That was a total turning point,” Rapinoe said this summer. And she was the architect.

A week later, the USWNT choked away the final to Japan. “But the response back home when we arrived in New York was as if we had won,” U.S. Soccer chief communications officer Neil Buethe told Yahoo Sports via email in 2019. “Our players’ Twitter follower numbers exploded. Abby, Megan, Alex [Morgan] and others became household names. … Abby’s goal was the spark that lit the bonfire of interest we now see with this team.”

Rapinoe remembers the reception, too — and the morning-show invites, and “realizing that the game had changed very dramatically for everyone in this country.”

She also remembers sensing opportunity — and a responsibility, according to her worldview, to use her stardom “to make the world a better place.”

Her 2012 decision to publicly come out as gay validated that worldview and hardened her resolve. Over the days, months and years that followed her announcement, she received countless thank yous, most from strangers, “people saying that I sort of gave them the inspiration, or the push, or the confidence that they needed to be themselves, or tell their families [they’re gay], or come out,” Rapinoe recounted to Yahoo Sports years later.

Her 2012 Olympics then raised her profile even further. She won gold in London. Three years later, she won a World Cup. Her platform continued to grow — and she continued to grow more comfortable using it.

Rapinoe ups her game, on and off the field

Rapinoe’s full changemaking portfolio began to take shape in 2016. She and four teammates filed a federal wage discrimination complaint, formalizing their fight for equal pay. Rapinoe, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, also knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequities and police brutality. And that’s when hate, which diverted attention away from the subjects of her protest, really began to flow.

Rapinoe felt it, sometimes intensely. Her family felt it too. There were “heavy” conversations, her twin sister Rachael told Yahoo Sports two years later. “There was a five-month period there, from the time she first kneeled, where it was a lot,” her close friend Lori Lindsey told Yahoo Sports. “She was torn to pieces in media, and on social media, and in general. … She’s a human being, you feel that stuff, and it can be very scary when you have threats and people calling you names. It can take its toll.”

“But one of her greatest gifts,” Lindsey continued, “is being able to manage a lot of that stuff, and being able to bounce back from it.”

USWNT’s Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring a goal against the Netherlands during the 2019 Women’s World Cup final at Stade de Lyon on July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

All of it ramped up in 2019. As they readied their World Cup title defense, USWNT players sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination. Rapinoe, meanwhile, helped spark a personal feud with then-President Donald Trump, which ignited smack-dab in the middle of said World Cup.

To the average human, and perhaps to the average professional athlete, all of it would have been one massive, inescapable distraction. But Rapinoe embraced it; cherished it; and almost vaulted off it, lifting the entire USWNT with her.

As their equal pay fight simmered, they felt added pressure, to which Rapinoe would later admit. “This is kind of like a must-win World Cup for us,” she remembers thinking.

But it didn’t drag them down. On the contrary, “I think it did give us confidence,” Rapinoe said. “I think it pressured us, but I think we also knew that we could handle it. It was almost like a mandatory upping of our level, to be able to match everything that we were saying off the field.”

Perhaps not every teammate agrees with her interpretation; but Rapinoe upped her own level so high that nothing else mattered. She converted free kicks and penalties, flawlessly. While sharing the captain’s armband and wearing her trademark smile, she won the tournament’s Golden Boot and Golden Ball en route to her second world championship. She conducted a chorus of “equal pay” chants, which spread from the Parc Olympique Lyonnais to New York and California. And she embodied the swagger and brashness that defined the 2010s USWNT — arguably the single most impactful team in soccer history.

What Rapinoe is most proud of

No one line of Rapinoe’s remarkable ledger will set her apart from the USWNT’s other greats. Her 203 caps rank 12th in program history. Her 63 goals rank 10th. Her titles were shared with what she often calls a “really special generation of players.” Some predecessors won even more consistently. By no soccer measure is Rapinoe the GOAT.

But her career is still unparalleled, unprecedented in its duality.

The breadth of her impact, on both her sport and the world that revolves around it, might never be matched.

Her ability to blend joy with impact, and soccer with social activism, was extraordinary.

The activism is what differentiated her, and earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and won acclaim. It’s what Rapinoe is most proud of, “by a mile.” And in many ways, it overshadowed her soccer.

President Joe Biden awards the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Megan Rapinoe at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

But Rapinoe rarely let it corrupt her focus, or compromise her work ethic. That was her gift.

It was, “at times, incredibly exhausting,” Rapinoe acknowledged in a June interview with Yahoo Sports. Back in 2016, amid the furor around her racial justice protests, she admitted that the ensuing saga and backlash were “draining.” A couple years later, she told Yahoo Sports: “It wasn’t easy for me.”

“But it shouldn’t be [easy],” she continued. “Whenever you’re trying to be an ally, and it’s super easy and comfortable for you, you’re not an ally. … I think that was a really good lesson for me: This is what it’s going to take for things to change, norms to change, conventions to change, to try to break down white supremacy and break down racial bias. It’s going to take it being hard.”

So she vowed to continue fighting — but also to continue winning.

“Without the winning, you don’t get all these microphones,” she said at a jam-packed news conference during her final World Cup. “Without the winning, you don’t get the platform, you don’t get the media, you don’t get the eyes, you don’t get the fans, you don’t get the ability to say what you want all the time.”

Rapinoe attracted the media, and the eyes, and the fans, because she won. And she’ll keep them, long after Sunday’s goodbye, because of everything else.


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