Megan Rapinoe began her long goodbye with the equivalent of a homecoming.
In the decade and a half since she became a professional soccer player, Rapinoe’s career has taken her to club soccer on two continents, the Olympic Games on three and, soon, a fourth World Cup. On Sunday, a day after shocking her team and fans by publicly announcing her plans to retire at the end of this year, Rapinoe found herself snagging a seat on the US women’s national team bench a few hundred miles away. from his 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 around 40 of her family and friends had traveled south to watch the United States beat Wales, 2-0, in their last game on American soil before the Women’s World Cup that 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 news conference announcing her retirement plans on Saturday, Rapinoe had said she was at peace with the decision to walk away from soccer. Now, she simply relished the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the sport that made her an international star, as well as a spokesperson for equal rights, equal pay and the social justice issues close to her heart. .
Rapinoe has played for the national team since 2006. A three-time Olympian and two-time World Cup champion, she has scored 63 goals for the United States and is one of seven players to rack up 50+ career goals and 50+ assists. . United States national team career.
His role is different these days, having evolved from a lineup fixture to a late-game substitute. However, she is still valued by her coach, Vlatko Andonovski; he included her in his World Cup roster because he values her leadership, experience and ability to shape great moments.
Whenever and however she plays in the future, she remains a crowd favorite. One fan, Corina Burns, who wore a number 15 jersey with the name “Rapinoe” on the back of it, said she drove from Southern California with her three daughters to attend Sunday’s game. It wasn’t the family’s first trip to watch 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 watched 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 Ballon d’Or as an outstanding player. It was also when she cemented her status as a pop culture icon: She scored six goals in the competition even as she publicly feuded with President Donald J. Trump.
She’s still 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 Women’s National Soccer League season and a calf injury keeping her out of two national team games against Ireland in April. Andonovski said after Sunday’s game that Rapinoe was medically cleared to play in the World Cup, but she was still working to get fit.
In her absence, newer faces (Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson) have begun to reclaim the forward position where Rapinoe was once a clear option. That new generation, the one that will occupy the space vacated by Rapinoe, once again exhibited itself against Wales.
In the 76th minute on Sunday, the 21-year-old Rodman broke through a goalless game by scoring easily from a cross from the 22-year-old Smith. Rodman struck again in the 88th minute, firing 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 since 2019. “It’s a younger roster this year, but the combination of experience and youth has been really good to learn from each other,” he said. Rodman after the game. while chants of “USA” resounded throughout the stadium. “Just as we can learn from them, they can also learn from us.”
In that sense, Rapinoe still has a lot to offer. Andonovski has made no secret of how much he values the wisdom and institutional knowledge he brings to a team that now features players like Thompson, 18, who just finished high school, and Savannah DeMelo, 25, who received it. first international match on Sunday, plus a dozen other new faces heading to their first World Cup.
The fact that the USA struggled to defeat a determined Wales team that failed to qualify for the World Cup until Rodman scored twice from the bench was perhaps a hopeful indication that Rapinoe could still play a significant role play before she leaves the team forever. .
Her chance never came Sunday: Rapinoe didn’t warm up and Andonovski never called her on. It was another sign that even though Rapinoe said her time was almost up, times may have already changed.