Megan Rapinoe managed to treat triumph and disaster the same after Saturday’s emotion-sapping conclusion to her soccer story.
“I feel like I get to walk away smiling no matter what, really proud of my entire career,” she told reporters after her OL Reign side’s NWSL Championship final defeat by Gotham FC.
Teammate Rose Lavelle had said last week it was “poetic” that Rapinoe and Ali Krieger would play their last games as pro athletes against each other with a title on the line.
Gotham FC held on to secure it 2-1 in San Diego, completing a true underdog story. Last year, the team finished bottom of the league. This season, the trophy is theirs.
However, this game was as much about the pain as the glory after Rapinoe’s participation was ended by injury shortly after kick-off.
No opponent was near her when she fell to the turf. She said later that she thought she had torn her Achilles tendon and hoped to get “the Aaron Rodgers treatment” in a bid to speed up her recovery.
Rapinoe’s sharp exit blunted the Reign’s attacking threat and although Lavelle did well to mitigate that with a superb individual showing, this was more reality than poetry. Sports can be so cruel.
A verse that could fit the bill, however, is “If” — one of Rudyard Kipling’s best-known works. He writes of the need to “fill the unforgiving minute” as a metaphor for making good use of all the time available.
Rapinoe took the bigger picture, realizing that ultimately this was just one moment in a career packed with achievements and honors.
“That’s life, that’s part of the game,” she said in the post-match press conference, sitting alongside Lavelle who couldn’t help but smile at Rapinoe’s sanguine outlook.
There is a stoic quality to “If” that makes the poem a sporting favorite. Muhammad Ali carried its words of inspiration in his wallet, and an excerpt from its second stanza — that famous advice about how to handle ‘triumph and disaster’ — greets players as they walk into Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Another line refers to the need for mental fortitude, allowing “neither foes nor loving friends” to hurt you. Although they lined up as opponents at the Snapdragon Stadium, it always felt like the occasion was as much about Rapinoe and Krieger’s friendship as anything else.
The players’ close bond, forged through phenomenal success with the U.S. national team including back-to-back FIFA World Cup wins, had been one of the major themes of this NWSL final.
They embraced it fully, in all the build-up to the big game and even in that third minute when Rapinoe was being helped off the field.
Krieger ran over to give her best pal a hug. Rapinoe revealed later: “She said, ‘you better wrap that thing up and get back out here’ and I’m like, ‘no, but I yeet’ed it all... I don’t think I’ll be back’.”
Midway through the first half, Lynn Williams tapped in from a Midge Purce cross to put Gotham in front, only for Lavelle to respond five minutes later with an equalizer for the Reign.
Gotham hit the post and the crossbar in rapid succession before moving ahead once more in first-half stoppage time as Esther Gonzalez headed home Purce’s perfect corner.
After the interval, Veronica Latsko had a great chance to level again from Lavelle’s superb through-ball but was thwarted by ‘keeper Mandy Haught as Gotham held firm.
Haught was shown a red card deep into stoppage time for handling the ball outside the area, with midfielder Nealy Martin going in goal for the closing moments but Reign couldn’t find a way through.
Gonzalez thus proved to be the match-winner and her historic title-clinching contribution comes less than three months after she joined Gotham FC from Real Madrid.
The Spain international striker’s arrival was announced only a few days after the World Cup final. This was her first goal since her full debut for the team back in September, when she scored twice in a 2-0 win over Washington Spirit.
Away from the pitch, the 30-year-old is dating Estefania Cruz, with whom she co-founded a personal training brand called ‘Goldness’.
Sharing a video of Gotham’s celebrations to her Instagram story, Cruz wrote of Gonzalez: “This one doesn’t stop! You continue making history. How much you deserve it and how proud I am of you.”
For Krieger, after all the drama of recent weeks including in her personal life, victory was simply the “perfect ending” to her career.
“I just want to ride off into the sunset and enjoy this with my family and friends and kids, most importantly, and my teammates,” she said. Her brother Kyle, influencer and LGBTQ activist, was on hand to capture the happy vibes.
Coaching “could be in the future” for Krieger, she admitted. For now, it was about saying goodbye to life as a pro athlete. “My back hurts, my calves hurt. I love it so much and it’s so much fun. But it’s time.”
Her joy was tempered however by her despair for Rapinoe, describing herself as “gutted” that her friend had experienced such an unhappy finale.
“It’s devastating to see one of the best players in the world have to step out because of injury in the first five minutes of the game,” said Krieger.
“To have such a buildup to this moment, to have her of anyone... it does change the game. You want to play against the best players. I was really upset for her.”
As the party was ongoing, Rapinoe — with her foot in a protective boot — was able to walk across the field to hug her wife, Sue Bird.
Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird share an emotional moment on the field pic.twitter.com/gZEP2T4iqg— Natasha Dye (@natashadye) November 12, 2023
Earlier in the week, Bird (part of Gotham FC’s celebrity co-ownership group) had been pictured on Instagram holding up a split ‘Krienoe’ Gotham-Reign shirt to reflect her multiple loyalties, with the caption: “Best of both worlds.”
Rapinoe praised Krieger in the press conference and mixed zone, and she was determined to look on the bright side, continuing to put on a brave face as she was asked (for the umpteenth time) about the legacy she would leave to soccer.
“I always tried to play the game the right way and enjoy it. At the end of the day, I feel like we are in the entertainment business, especially in a growing sport and a growing league.
“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.”
More than anything, she’s excited about the NWSL’s future.
“I feel like we’ve left a pretty solid blueprint for the kids to continue, to not only grow the game and make it the premier league in the world, but also affect change off the field.
“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.”