‘I’m like a proud gay aunt’: Rapinoe bids farewell to game she helped transform

TThe only storyline leading up to the NWSL Championship was the storyline itself, which seemed too perfect: OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe would face Ali Krieger of NJ/NY Gotham FC. Two American legends played their final matches for a trophy neither had ever won.

What a way to go out, and what a story for this league to sell.

But whoever or whatever wrote the storylines had other ideas – and even Rapinoe, a master of publicity, couldn’t get the script to her liking. The two-time World Cup and Ballon d’Or winner, who became a household name for standing up for numerous causes and literally not standing up for others, thereby attracting praise and controversy, has always understood the power of sport as a platform. So it was truly disorienting when Rapinoe went down without contact on Saturday, just four minutes after kick-off, and later said she felt a pop in her Achilles tendon.

Sometimes the end comes before you are ready. Nobody was ready for this. In no time she went from center stage to spectator. Her night was over, and all evening it seemed impossible to think that her career was over too – especially not in such a way, on such an occasion.

The show had to go on. And luckily for the league, that happened with a wild finale at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego. It was a match that was often cautious, sometimes dazzling and sometimes bizarre. For soccer in America in general, and specifically for the NWSL, it often seems like the only way for a game or even announcement to happen is to ask the following questions: What will this look like? And will it grow the game?

Even this match was part of a tricky trade-off for the competition, which was set up in the semi-finals last week. San Diego’s NWSL Shield-winning team, a tenant in Snapdragon, significantly outpaces the U.S. college football team’s landlord and often sells out the 35,000-seat stadium. The question became: would it be better to have a full, rocking stadium for the final, or an irresistible story?

It got the latter last Sunday after Rapinoe’s OL Reign defeated San Diego at home in front of a sold-out stadium. The number of participants in last night’s championship was announced considerably lower, at 25,000 – which on the face of it seemed a bit generous. Nevertheless, it was a new record for the final.

As is the case with football in America, the crowd was remarkably young and cosmopolitan. The merchandise counters seemed impossibly long. There were fans everywhere, not just from other NWSL teams, but from seemingly every team. There were USWNT shirts. Manchester United shirts. Arsenal shirts. These types of events are football as a lifestyle, you could say. American fans come not only for the game, but also for the sport itself, which still takes a back seat to American football, basketball and baseball.

After Rapinoe’s departure, the match became reserved and cautious in the first fifteen minutes, as finals often are. Perhaps fittingly, two of Rapinoe and Krieger’s USWNT teammates scored the opening goal of the match: Lynn Williams for Gotham and Rose Lavelle for OL Reign. And it was a World Cup winner who decided the match, but not an American. Spain’s Esther González remained unmarked in the penalty area as she headed home for Gotham.

However, drama arose late in stoppage time when the tension was unexpectedly increased. Gotham’s goalkeeper, Mandy Haught, handled the ball outside the penalty area to prevent OL Reign’s Elyse Bennett from scoring on a breakaway. After a quick VAR review, Haught was shown a red card and Nealy Martin, a midfielder, took the gloves and played goalkeeper. From the free kick, the Gotham wall headed the ball away, after which the referee blew her whistle.

On her last day as a professional soccer player, Ali Krieger won her first NWSL championship. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The championship went to Gotham, the team that finished in last place last season. Krieger was presented with her trophy and half a stadium spontaneously chanted her name – Midge Purce, who had caused chaos for the Reign defense all night, was named MVP of the championship game. Fireworks exploded, confetti flew everywhere. Krieger then shook with excitement in the mixing area – eyes wide open, big smile, glistening with sweat, a shiny medal around her neck.

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During Friday’s pre-game press conference, Krieger and Rapinoe each separately reminisced about their first years in the league. It was a difficult experience playing in front of hundreds of people, having to scrounge for socks or other basic supplies, and having to wash their own uniforms.

Although this was their last match, in many ways the league these two veterans helped build is already evolving. The NWSL just announced a lucrative new TV deal worth a reported $240 million, which would be the largest ever for a women’s sports league. The league is expanding rapidly and will have a larger play-off format next year. Celebrities have invested in the competition. Parity has largely been achieved. New talent is created. This match itself was held in a stadium that has an average of more than 20,000 fans per match in the NWSL this season. And this particular match featured impressive goals and wild moments.

In other words, it was a great finale without Rapinoe’s intervention. But in a strange way, the night still seemed to belong to Rapinoe, the barely-starred star.

By the time she reached the mixing area long after the final whistle, her foot was bound in a walking cast and she was adorned with Michael Caine glasses, large chains and a denim jacket. The stadium staff, team entourages and heavy equipment that often buzzed in the bowels of a stadium were all long gone. It was just Rapinoe, her press officer, and a small group of patient reporters. She graciously admitted that she was excited about where women’s football is now, after what her generation has built, and where it is going. “I’m like a proud gay aunt looking down on the competition, proud that they’re going the extra mile,” she joked.

It was a contradictory sight. All her usual flashes and stardust were on display, but she looked crushed. Here was a rock star whose band had already started playing without her. Sometimes this is how things end. “I’m most angry that now I’m just a NARP – a normal human being – and have to go through rehabilitation, which is fucking devastating,” she said at the post-match press conference.

As her handler hurriedly wrapped up interviews to get Rapinoe on her way, the fallen star flashed a wry smile. “Don’t worry, I’m close!” said Rapinoe. Then she limped away alone, down the slope into the night.