All week, there was a constant refrain: the NWSL Championship was set up for a poetic finish between two of the game’s greatest players. Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger would play against each other for one more trophy in the final match of their respective careers. “You couldn’t write a better ending,” Gotham forward Lynn Williams said on Friday, with a smile. It was supposed to be one last chance to give two players their flowers in real-time, no matter who ended victorious.
But only two minutes and 25 seconds into Saturday night’s showdown at Snapdragon Stadium in front of a rowdy, record 25,011 fans, Rapinoe’s chance to write her half of the story ended abruptly, and without warning. During an offensive run, Rapinoe slipped and fell to the pitch with an apparent non-contact injury. She grabbed at her lower right leg, first in disbelief and then with a typical wry smile.
“It sucks,” Rapinoe said after the game, her right foot encased in a boot. “I don’t think there’s any good things to say about it or a silver lining.
“I was feeling good. I was actually feeling some of my best I felt all season these last couple of weeks. I wasn’t feeling tight in my calf or Achilles or anything. So in classic form, I was like, ‘F—, who just kicked me?’ There’s nobody, I’m the one pressing, there’s nobody around me. So, I had that immediate thought and then just went to feel down (there), there’s nothing there. I don’t really think I need a scan (to know it was possibly a torn Achilles tendon).”
While she received a boot and crutches during halftime, Rapinoe sent a few texts to her mother and her fiancée Sue Bird, allowing the rest of the team to talk through the plan for the second half. “I wasn’t overly emotional about it,” Rapinoe said. “I mean, f—ing yeeted my Achilles in the sixth minute in my last game ever in the literal championship game.”
Before Rapinoe had exited the field for the final time, she limped over to Krieger and exchanged a hug, somehow still smiling that familiar smile. For her part, Krieger said that she had encouraged Rapinoe to wrap up her leg to get back out there, that she had never expected something like that to happen.
“Football is such a risk, right? You never know if it’s gonna be your last game, your last moment, and to happen to such an incredible player, in that moment, when there was such a build-up,” Krieger said.
It was hard, as Rapinoe gingerly stepped off the field, to not think of something Krieger had mentioned in a pre-match press conference, about why she still played despite all the wins and all the struggles she had gone through in her career. “I’m giving it everything I have and you don’t necessarily get all of it back in return. So you have to have that willingness and drive to want to do it for yourself because you love it,” she said.
This year, Rapinoe hasn’t always gotten much back from the game. She missed her penalty during the USWNT’s World Cup loss to Sweden this summer. She had never missed a penalty before that moment. Like Saturday, that night in Melbourne ended with tears and laughter and that note of disbelief that such a trusted part of her game had let her down in such a major moment. But on Saturday, it felt like nothing more than a fluke, a bad step, something she never could have seen coming, or even attempted to avoid.
The moment affected the match, for both teams. “When I saw her put her head back,” Gotham forward and the game’s MVP Midge Purce said, “I’ve seen her go down (before), and it was really sad. Then one of the girls on their team started crying, and I turned to (Yazmeen Ryan), and I said let’s go to her because she was clearly upset. It’s hard. I think that definitely affected them a lot.”
Purce helped Gotham take the lead later that half, setting up Lynn Williams’ opening goal by running through three OL Reign defenders. Rose Lavelle equalized, but Purce again set up the go-ahead goal, giving her team the lead before halftime — one they would never relinquish.
Gotham FC earned the NWSL title, and Midge Purce owned the night
After the match, when Lavelle walked through the mixed zone, clearly feeling several emotions from the loss, she had to pause for a moment to collect herself before answering a question about Rapinoe.
“It seems like a sick joke that it has to end that way,” she said. “It’s just been such an honor to be able to share the field with her, so I wish we could have gotten it done today. She’s amazing; she doesn’t deserve that. I think with everything, she just takes it on the chin and was still our biggest fan out there.”
During the postgame press conference, Lavelle sat next to Rapinoe as the former Ballon d’Or winner dealt with the adversity the only way she knows how, through humor.
“I mean I don’t deserve this,” Rapinoe said with a laugh. “I’m a better person than this, maybe I was f—ing in a previous lifetime. … This one feels different than missing a (penalty) in New Zealand. I mean, again, it’s like that’s life. It’s part of the game.”
There is only one Megan Rapinoe 👑
⭐️11-year NWSL career with OL Reign
⭐️ 117 regular-season games for the Reign
⭐️ 52 NWSL goals
⭐️ Presidential Medal of Freedom
⭐️ Olympic Champion
⭐️ Ballon d’Or
⭐️ Gender Equity Advocate
⭐️ 2x World Cup Winner pic.twitter.com/EqEi9t6gcI
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) November 12, 2023
Just over 24 hours earlier, Rapinoe had exhaled a laugh over a question about why she and her teammates hadn’t ever managed to actually win a NWSL Championship before, despite two previous appearances in 2014 and 2015 and a run of semifinal losses. “S—’s hard,” she’d said, a simple enough explanation. A true one.
On Saturday night, it was more of the same.
She got another question too, one she’s heard time and time again in the long run of games since announcing her retirement ahead of the World Cup, through her final game with the USWNT and her send-off ceremony with the Reign. What, exactly, is her legacy?
And as always, she still hesitated to answer the way any reporter would truly like: some tidy summation of her career, her accomplishments off the field, her personality, her refusal to fit herself into a box.
“Oh, that’s for you guys to write,” she replied. “I don’t—I don’t know. I always tried to play the game the right way. Always tried to enjoy it. At the end of the day, I feel like we are in the entertainment business, and especially in a growing sport and a growing league, I feel like that’s really important. Always try to make things better.
“I just walk away so proud and so happy to have not only my contribution to the game but the era that I’ve played in and knowing that the game is in such a better place. That’s a testament to all the players that have played in this generation and played in this league,” she said, pointing to the league’s new media deal, the quality of the games. “I feel like I get to walk away smiling no matter what, really proud of my entire career.”
NWSL reveals TV deals with ESPN, CBS, more
So maybe it was fitting that in one of her final quotes as a player, she gave a typical Megan Rapinoe answer to a question about the game she is now leaving behind, as a player at least.
“This is what we have built, the players who played in my generation, this is part of our legacy and what we’ve left behind. What is now here for the kids to take and to do with what they want. But I feel like we’ve left a pretty solid blueprint for them to continue to not only grow the game, and make it the premier league in the world, but also affect change off the field and continue to couple that with what they’re doing on the field,” Rapinoe said.
“I’m a proud, gay aunt, looking down on the league like, ‘Damn, we did good.’ But they’re going to be able to take it so much further.”
And with that, Rapinoe, for the first time in well over a decade, was done with her responsibilities as a professional footballer.
“I guess I just rode it until the wheels came right off,” Rapinoe said. “You don’t always get perfect endings, but I’ve also had so many perfect endings.”
(Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)