Megan Rapinoe began her long farewell with the equivalent of a comeback.
In the decade and a half since she became a professional soccer player, Rapinoe’s career has taken her to soccer clubs on two continents, to the Olympics on three and, soon, to a fourth World Cup. On Sunday, a day after she surprised her team and her fans by publicly announcing plans to retire at the end of this year, Rapinoe found herself sitting on the U.S. women’s national team bench several hundred miles from her hometown.
Rapinoe, 38, grew up in Redding, California, about 250 miles north of the site of Sunday’s game, PayPal Park in San Jose. She estimated that about 40 of her family members and friends made the trip south to see the United States beat Wales, 2-0, in their final game on American soil before the Women’s World Cup, which begins later this month in Australia and new Zealand.
“This is the closest I’ll ever get to playing Redding in my career,” Rapinoe said Saturday. “It feels very special. It feels perfect.”
During the press conference in which she announced her retirement plans on Saturday, Rapinoe said she was at peace with the decision to retire from soccer. Now she was just relishing the opportunity to give a fitting farewell to the sport that made her an international star, as well as a spokesperson for equal rights, equal pay and social justice issues close to her heart.
Rapinoe has been playing for the national team since 2006. A three-time Olympic and two-time World Cup champion, she scored 63 goals for the United States and is one of seven players who have accumulated more than 50 goals and 50 assists in her career. US national team career.
Her role is different these days, having evolved from a lineup fixture to a late-game substitute. She is still valued by her coach, Vlatko Andonovski, however; he included her in his World Cup roster because he appreciates her leadership, experience and ability to shape big moments.
Whenever and however she plays forward, she remains a crowd favorite. One fan, Corina Burns, who wore a No. 15 T-shirt with the name “Rapinoe” on the back, said she drove from Southern California with her three daughters to attend Sunday’s game. It wasn’t the family’s first trip to see the national team play: They were in France four years ago, when Rapinoe was one of the Americans’ most valuable players in their 2019 World Cup victory.
“We saw her play and fell in love with her,” Burns said.
That World Cup remains, for now, Rapinoe’s crowning achievement. She won both the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as its outstanding player. It’s also when she cemented her status as a pop culture icon: She scored six goals in the competition even as she publicly sparred with President Donald J. Trump.
She remains an outspoken voice, but she’s a different player these days. Rapinoe has been hampered by injuries for months, with an ankle injury keeping her out of the start of the National Women’s Soccer League season and a calf injury keeping her out of two national team matches against Ireland in April.
In her absence, newer faces – Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson – began to claim the front position where Rapinoe was once a clear choice. That new generation, the one that will occupy the vacated space of Rapinoe, was exposed again against Wales.
In the 76th minute on Sunday, Rodman, 21, broke through in a scoreless game by easily winning a cross from Smith, 22. Rodman struck again in the 88th minute, powering a shot from 20 yards past the hands of Wales goalkeeper Olivia Clark. . Rodman became the youngest American player to score two goals in an international match.
Rapinoe still has a lot to offer, too. Andonovski has made no secret of how much he values the wisdom and institutional knowledge she brings to a team that now features players like the 18-year-old Thompson, who is fresh out of high school; Savannah DeMelo, 25, who received her first cap on Sunday; and the dozen or so other new faces headed for their first World Cup.
That they struggled until Rodman scored twice from the bench to destroy a resolute Wales team that failed to qualify for the World Cup was perhaps a hopeful sign that Rapinoe will still have an important role to play before she leaves the team for good.
Her chance never came on Sunday: Rapinoe didn’t warm up and Andonovski never called for her to come. It was another sign that even though Rapinoe said her time was almost up, times may have already changed.