Megan Rapinoe, the iconic soccer star who has transcended her sport to become one of the most outspoken, accomplished and dynamic athletes of her generation, didn’t want to wait until the end to say this season would be the end.
She wasn’t going to play game after game at the Women’s World Cup, which starts later this month in Australia and New Zealand, holding it in that she would retire at the conclusion of this year, after her last big tournament for the United States and her final season for her professional team. In perfect Rapinoe fashion, there was no way she could remain silent about something important to her.
So at a news conference on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s U.S. game against Wales in San Jose, Calif., Rapinoe, 38, announced that it was time for her to say goodbye.
“I just want to say thank you to everybody,” she told a room full of reporters as the U.S. team prepares to fly to New Zealand for the Women’s World Cup. “I could have never imagined where this beautiful game would have taken me.” She called playing for the national team “the greatest thing that I have ever done.”
After 17 years on Team U.S.A. and nearly as many years speaking out to support various issues including L.G.B.T.Q. rights, equal pay, the Black Lives Matter movement and voter rights, Rapinoe will play in her fourth Women’s World Cup and her final season in the National Women’s Soccer League. She said she feels peaceful and grateful that she can end her career on her own terms, and at the top of her sport, too.
During Rapinoe’s career that is filled with highlight-reel material both on and off the field, she has played in 199 games for the national team and has scored 63 goals for the United States. She is a three-time Olympian and won gold with her team at the 2012 London Games. And it seems that exactly when her team needed it the most, she has come through with clutch plays, making her mark as a creative and dangerous forward.
Perhaps nothing exemplified her ability to perform under pressure more than when she scored twice in a quarterfinal against France at the 2019 World Cup. Her goals came just days after former President Donald J. Trump criticized her on Twitter for her stance that she wouldn’t go to the Trump White House if her team won the tournament.
Trump said: “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!”
Rapinoe, however, did not flinch. In the fifth minute of that match against France, she scored on a free kick and ran to the corner of the field, stretched her arms out wide and basked in the applause of the fans. Sporting hair dyed purple that often changed color with the season, she scored again in the second half to catapult the team into the semifinals, with a 2-1 victory. The Americans went on to win that world title, their second in a row.
Rapinoe was stunning on the field in 2019. She won the Ballon d’Or as the FIFA women’s player of the year. Her six goals at that World Cup helped her earn the Golden Boot as the top scorer and the Golden Ball as the top player.
“She’s just a great player that’s done so much for this program, so much for soccer in general,” Alex Morgan, Rapinoe’s longtime teammate, said. “I’m just really happy for her that she’s going to go out with a bang, hopefully.”
She added: “Now we have to go win the whole damn thing.”
Rapinoe said she was especially grateful that her body has held up after all of these years, but that she has been on “a little bit of borrowed time.” Like most elite athletes who have been around for nearly two decades, she has battled injuries.
This season, Rapinoe has been dealing with an ankle injury and because of a calf injury she missed two national team friendlies against Ireland in April. Even if she will be at less than 100 percent, though, her leadership will be key for a relatively inexperienced U.S. team with 14 World Cup rookies on a roster of 23 players. So many of them idolized Rapinoe when they were growing up, and still do.
“This is all for her,” defender Crystal Dunn said adding that Rapinoe has been an inspiration to her throughout her career.
“She’s somebody that I look up to and lean on from time to time about random stuff, not even soccer related,” Dunn said. “I think she’s somebody that you always want in your corner.”
It’s that random stuff and “the little things” that Rapinoe said she will remember and miss the most. Like the feeling when she walks into a locker room after a championship match to see the lockers covered with tarps in anticipation of a wild champagne celebration, or the excitement of seeing her teammates rejoin the squad after they finished maternity leave.
Or what it’s like to compete at an Olympics: Her retirement this year means she won’t play at the 2024 Paris Games next summer. “There’s certain things in the game that I think you just have to mourn when you walk away,” she said.
Rapinoe will try to keep all those feelings at bay now that the news of her retirement is behind her and the final moments of her career are at hand. She said she now can focus on winning the World Cup without any distractions.
One thing she learned “very, very early on,” Rapinoe said, is that “if there’s one second on the clock, that’s enough time.”
Claire Fahy reported from San Jose, Calif.