Going to penalties, taking the last one, scoring, lifting the trophy. That’s probably the perfect ending that most had designed for Megan Rapinoe and OL Reign in last night’s NWSL Final against Gotham FC. A chance to makeup, a little bit, for her penalty miss at the World Cup. Maybe even erase, just a smidge, her wretched World Cup overall.
But things rarely if ever go to plan, especially the best plan. And Rapinoe’s career and stature in the soccer world, and society, means that her World Cup, her penalty miss, and the torn Achilles that ended her last match after just two minutes will be wiped to the side anyway. She means too much for any of that to matter.
While the glorious ending would have been poetic, Rapinoe driving the car until it simply wouldn’t manage even one more RPM has its beauty and poetry, too. No one can say she didn’t squeeze every last drop out of what she had, and pushing it just a little more is what made her what she is. Rapinoe’s game was about diving headlong, damn the torpedoes, there’s no wall I can’t get through. She was most at home when her team, club or country, was at its most direct, Rapinoe able to scorch up and down either wing to hit in another menacing cross or shot. Riding off smoothly into the sunset? Nothing about Rapinoe was “riding smoothly,” far closer to blitzing the War Rig through the dunes and enemies.
While it is unfortunate that the first part of her life in retirement will still be spent in recovery and rehab, it did give Rapinoe a chance, one last time, to flash the wit and smile she showed when things were at their best or their worst. Perhaps it touches something within me a little more than others, as I tend to laugh my way through the hard times too. She drew criticism for laughing after the US’s World Cup exit, but it was her way to smirk at the absurdity of her missing a penalty, something she rarely did. Or how empty her performance for the whole tournament had come up. It was the best coping mechanism. Isn’t it too silly how this has all gone, in comparison how it all went before?
There was always an undercurrent of laughter to everything Rapinoe did, even when she was the face of the important fights that she or her team took on. Whether protesting the wage gap, or defending her kneeling during the anthem, or talking about the abuse that had run rampant through the NWSL, her tone always had a foundation of, “Isn’t it laughably stupid that I even have to defend this position?” “How comedic is it that anyone would argue with these clearly obvious points?” Maybe that’s what pissed so many off about Rapinoe, which she clearly relishes. That not only was she a confident, vociferous gay woman, but she didn’t hide how dumb she thought her opponents on the issues were. Which she never should have had to anyway, and doing so with a chuckle only rightly minimized those opposite her more, and angered them more, providing a hilarious contrast of the boorish screaming men in the wrong and the smirking woman in the right, stretching that chasm.
Her game on the field was full of delight as well. How devilish opponents must’ve found it that as Rapinoe was kicking their ass, she always looked like she was having the time of her life doing so. Rapinoe may or may not have been the best player on either the 2015 or 2019 World Cup winners. One could have the debate between her, Carli Lloyd, and Julie Ertz another time. But she was unquestionably the epicenter of the bravado and swagger that those teams carried that played no small part in their victories. Laughing all the way at the very idea that someone might beat them.
Rapinoe might wince that she’s still the story of the Final, even as Ali Krieger got the poetic ending to her career she might have dreamed about. Or that Midge Purce and Lynn Williams starred for Gotham in the same position that Rapinoe might have. That a team like Gotham, not all that long ago the symbol of the indifference and obstacle that a team’s ownership could be to its players to lifting the trophy, still would take a backseat to a player who was on the field in less time it takes to get back from the can. But that’s the weight and size of Rapinoe’s legend.
So she limps off into the sunset instead of galloping. She’ll still be laughing at the absurdity of it all. So will we, that one career could have so much, one player be so many things, the sheer list of moments she provided and the people she inspired. As it carried all that, it’s a wonder it lasted this long. Perhaps the last, stark reminder of its impermanence is what we needed.
And a good laugh, of course.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social