Seventeen years and two months after her USA debut, Megan Rapinoe has played for the national team for the last time.
More than 25,000 fans were in attendance Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago to witness her send-off and to show their appreciation for a player whose contributions to back-to-back Women’s World Cup successes and an Olympic title were colossal.
Beyond the pitch, Rapinoe elevated herself and the team to even greater heights, taking up the fight for equality on several fronts, achieved in no small part through her own authenticity as an out gay athlete.
Before kick-off in a friendly against South Africa in which Rapinoe captained the side and claimed an assist in a 2-0 win, the 38-year-old shared a kiss with wife Sue Bird on the pitch and posed for pictures with her family.
The assist came from a corner taken by Rapinoe early in the second half. Banyana Banyana goalkeeper Andile Dlamini could only punch the ball away and it looped invitingly for Emily Sonnett to get above her marker and head it back towards goal and in.
An exuberant Sonnett ran towards her OL Reign club teammate Rapinoe and there was another extra-special moment to come as the latter was gently teased into producing her famous celebration pose.
They made Megan Rapinoe do her celebration one last time after Emily Sonnett's goal— B/R Football (@brfootball) September 24, 2023
Watch USA vs. South Africa live on TNT pic.twitter.com/GZpOadSSbX
Rapinoe was substituted in the 54th minute to a standing ovation. After the final whistle, she addressed the fans in a farewell speech before waving goodbye to the international stage.
She is due to retire from playing competitive soccer at the end of the current NWSL season.
Her most essential USWNT career stats and achievements: 203 caps, 63 goals, 73 assists, and the title of Best FIFA Women’s Player in 2019.
While acknowledging her individual talent and determination, it was as a teammate and an advocate that she had the greatest impact. In 2022, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a U.S. civilian can attain.
In the pre-match media conference, she spoke about how her positive experience of coming out publicly in a magazine interview shortly before the 2012 Olympics fuelled the activism that would follow.
“That was a big one,” she told reporters. “Just the reaction I got, people coming up to me and saying how much that meant to them or how it gave them space to come out.
“I think I realized right then, as the popularity of the team started to grow, that people came to see us not just for what we were doing on the field. They came to see themselves in us.
“How could we use that? How could we use the growing platform to fight for ourselves but also to fight for other people?”
She recognized the role that those in the room had played, too. “You guys grew into it. You’ve been such a huge part of amplifying our voices and covering our stories,” she said. “Bringing things to light that needed more than our voices.
“It’s been an evolution. I realized pretty early on the kind of energy that exists when you say something and then it gets put in the media.”
Rapinoe said that “by a mile”, the team’s achievements off the field — such as the historic equal pay deal struck last year — were what she is proudest of.
“That has made such a lasting impact,” she said. “We’ve been a big part of pushing, talking about [off-field issues], whether it’s gay rights or racial justice or trans rights, more into every conversation around sports, and particularly around women’s sports.
“We’ve been such a driver of that and have made that just as important as what we’re doing on the field. We really believe it’s just as important.”
The banners thanking Rapinoe held up around Soldier Field showed the fans believed it too. Take, for example, a triptych of signs that all began with ‘Mo Pinoe’; then the slogans ‘Mo Gays’, ‘Mo Rights’, and ‘Mo Pay’.
In a special short film produced by U.S. Soccer that was published just before kick-off in the South Africa game, Rapinoe — seated on a throne — was able to address all those people around the world who have supported her.
“I feel like this is saying goodbye to something that just feels like air in a way, being on this team, playing this sport, being part of what it means to be on the U.S. women’s national team. To me, it’s so much more than playing on the field,” she says in the video.
“We’ve won so much, achieved so much, and had so many incredible moments. But the most important thing to me was the commitment to leaving everything better than where you found it. Making it a better place.”
With tears in her eyes, she adds: “Thank you so much for really truly accepting me for who I am and allowing me to be the person that I am, on the field and off.
“To Sue, thank you so much for just being by my side. I love you so much.
“Be exactly who you want to be. It’s not worth it to be any other way.”
There were more tears of joy and expressions of gratitude towards Bird and her family in the farewell speech Rapinoe gave on the pitch, speaking directly to the fans at Soldier Field.
“When I think about what it means to me to represent not only this team but our country, we’re just a little snapshot of all of you,” she said.
“I think this team has always taken so much pride in that fact - in showing up as our full selves. I know how important that is to me and to this entire team.
“We fought so hard off the field to continue to create more space for ourselves to be who we are, but hopefully more space in turn for you guys to be who you are.
“I’m one of you guys now. I’m going to be the biggest fan of this team.”
Cheers and applause rang out as Rapinoe took a bow. “I guess that’s it! Love you guys!”
It’s not yet the final curtain on her playing career, as she now returns to Seattle for the last few matches of the campaign, with OL Reign pushing to make the NWSL playoffs.
Much more will be said about the legacy Rapinoe leaves to soccer as a whole when she takes to the field in the fall for her last competitive game, whenever that may be.
But as an adieu from Rapinoe to the American national-team family, this was spoken with poise, grace and humility.
In the earlier media conference, she also said: “This is an ending of one chapter but it feels very much like a beginning.
“I’m really excited about what’s to come. I love where women’s sports in general is at. It’s in such an exciting place.
“I hope to continue to be a part of that in a really big way — just on the other side of things.”