SAN DIEGO — Three minutes. That’s all it took to rip up the script for Saturday’s NWSL Championship match that was set to be a Hollywood-esque ride into the sunset for Megan Rapinoe in the last game of her illustrious career.
Following an immense amount of buildup to the United States soccer icon’s chance of winning a first-ever NWSL title with OL Reign in her final professional appearance, those hopes suddenly came crashing down as soon as she fell to the pitch in the early stages of a 2-1 loss to NJ/NY Gotham FC.
“It felt like just a huge pop,” said the two-time World Cup winner about her possible Achilles injury that forced an unexpected substitution by the sixth minute. “The worst possible outcome, I just thank God I have like a f—ing deep well of a sense of humor, but yeah, I mean, just obviously devastating to go out in the final so early.”
With the background of an immediate hush from the audience of 25,011 at Snapdragon Stadium — a record attendance for an NWSL final — Rapinoe’s teammates were also soon thrown off course by the injury. Throughout the first half after their marquee star was substituted, the Reign struggled to hold back a Gotham side that took control of the attacking momentum in San Diego. By the 24th minute, a mesmerizing run and assist from Midge Purce would lead to Lynn Williams putting Gotham ahead. Coupled with the injury for Rapinoe, it seemed as if the soccer gods were rewriting a once promising narrative and looking unkindly to the Reign, or at least according to head coach Laura Harvey.
“The first goal, there’s a foul on [Reign midfielder] Rose [Lavelle] in the buildup,” Harvey said postmatch. “In big games like this when you do turn up, you just need a little bit of luck… we didn’t get that tonight, the rub of the green wasn’t our way.”
Things did eventually swing in the Reign’s favor, albeit only for a short period of time. After quickly bouncing back through an equalizer from Lavelle in the 29th minute, with an assist from Rapinoe’s replacement Bethany Balcer, the Reign was soon behind once again after Gotham retook the lead shortly before halftime. Perfectly timing a header off a corner from Purce, Spain international and 2023 World Cup-winner Esther González directed the ball past Reign goalkeeper Claudia Dickey to make it 2-1 for Gotham in first-half stoppage time.
And yet, there was Rapinoe, joyful and seeming unbothered by the weight of the situation. Happily waving to fans in San Diego as she hobbled back to the sideline with crutches in the start to the second half, Rapinoe seamlessly transitioned from player to optimistic motivator as she supported and pushed her team forward in the final 45 minutes.
“I still just wanted to be a part of it… to continue to be there for the team and bring that positive energy,” Rapinoe said postmatch. “I thought we played really well, Rose played unbelievable, the team put in just an unbelievable effort.”
Gotham will go down as the well-deserved NWSL champion for 2023, but with Rapinoe helping guide things on the sideline, the Reign almost pieced together its once torn-up script in the final act. Carried by Lavelle’s attacking efforts through her clever distribution and movement, Harvey’s players more than doubled the amount of shots during the second half in comparison to the first. With a red card shown for Gotham goalkeeper Amanda McGlynn in the 97th minute, things nearly could have gone to extra time had the Reign been able to test 5-foot-7 midfielder Nealy Martin, who suddenly found herself in net after McGlynn’s red.
Although Gotham would eventually go on to secure the NWSL title by the final whistle, there was an unanticipated amount of brightness and “positive energy” from Rapinoe, who laughed while discussing her “f—ed up” injury in the championship loss that was the “worst possible outcome” in the final game of her career. Openly taking the situation on the chin with a wide grin and after being unable to secure the title, how was she able to manifest such bittersweet amusement? Perhaps it was due to the actual Hollywood-like ending on the opposite side of the field for Gotham’s Ali Krieger, a former U.S. women’s national team colleague and longtime friend of the OL Reign player.
“Obviously, so happy for her,” an earnest Rapinoe said after Saturday’s championship loss against Krieger. “So happy for her to be able to go out like this on an incredible career.”
Perhaps it was also due to knowing that the league is in a better place, regardless of what happened during the final. In the buildup to Saturday’s game, Rapinoe was beaming when talking about closing out her career in a moment when the NWSL is earning record crowds, increased attention, and a new media rights deal which is reportedly worth $240 million.
“I’m just so proud of my generation and all the players that have worked so hard to put us in this position. We obviously would’ve never had this a few years ago, so I feel like it is the perfect way to go out,” Rapinoe said during Thursday’s media day. “To be able to be in the championship game, to see how much the league has grown, to see how much the sport has grown [and] obviously a historic media deal today is just absolutely incredible.”
Or perhaps its simply an appreciation of the longevity and impact of her career that has earned multiple World Cup titles, an Olympic gold medal and a résumé that extends beyond what happens on the field. No matter the result from Saturday, Rapinoe would have kept intact her legacy that has become synonymous with fighting for equal pay in women’s soccer and player activism that inspired countless other sporting figures and fans. NWSL title or not, there’s clearly a greater script ahead for the player that is already looking forward.
“I’m looking forward to retirement,” Rapinoe said after Saturday’s loss, noting her business ventures and a desire to be involved in the decision-making of the NWSL’s next phase. “I’m retiring on the field, but you’ll definitely be seeing a lot of me off of it.”