© 2024 WMKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Megan Rapinoe plays her last regular season home game

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

One of soccer's greatest stars will retire this fall. Known for her talent on the field and activism off of it, Megan Rapinoe has been an outsized figure in women's soccer. Friday night was her last regular season game with - in Seattle with OL Reign, the team she's played on for 11 years. KNKX's Grace Madigan has this look back at her career.

GRACE MADIGAN, BYLINE: A new National Women's Soccer League attendance record was set last night by over 34,000 fans who showed up to Seattle's Lumen Field to celebrate the one and only Megan Rapinoe. Outside the stadium, before kickoff, there was music, food, face paint and hairspray. Eight-year-old Harper Womack (ph) was at the game with her grandparents and soccer team. She said Rapinoe is her favorite player.

HARPER WOMACK: I just like how fearless she is and how she's not scared to be in front of a bunch of people.

MADIGAN: Megan Rapinoe had been playing professionally for just a short time when her career was launched to a new level at the Women's World Cup in 2011. Her last-second assist in the quarterfinals to Abby Wambach tied the game with Brazil and became an iconic moment in soccer history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Rapinoe, Wambach - 2-2. That's what you call in USA a razzle-dazzle.

ABBY WAMBACH: Oh, man. What a freaking moment.

MADIGAN: That's Abby Wambach, the all-time leading U.S goal scorer in international soccer. She says that Rapinoe's soaring kick across the field was perfect.

WAMBACH: It was a much better cross than it was a goal. Everybody who knows and watches and play soccer knows that.

MADIGAN: From there, Rapinoe's prominence as a soccer player ramped up. In 2012, she helped the U.S. win gold at the Olympics. In 2015, she was a part of the team that won the U.S. its first women's World Cup since 1999. And in 2019, she was co-captain for the U.S. team when they won the World Cup again.

BECKY SAUERBRUNN: Oh, for me she's top. You say Mia Hamm. You can say Michelle Akers. And then I would put Megan Rapinoe right up there.

MADIGAN: Becky Sauerbrunn is a veteran for the national team and has played with Rapinoe since they were teenagers.

SAUERBRUNN: I would say from very early on, just her vision on the field and the ability to execute what she wants to do. So, like, her technique, the way that she can whip in free kicks, the way she can whip in crosses, like, there's a texture to it that you don't see a lot of people able to hit.

MADIGAN: But Rapinoe has become almost equally well-known as an advocate for progressive political issues, including LGBTQ rights, racial equity and equal pay for women in sports. Meg Linehan has covered women's soccer extensively for The Athletic and says that Rapinoe began to emerge as an activist in 2016, when she knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

MEG LINEHAN: But 2019, I think, really, truly is that point where you go from Megan Rapinoe being a very famous women's soccer player to Megan Rapinoe being famous period.

MADIGAN: That's because, during the World Cup that year, she got into a very public feud with then-President Donald Trump after telling a reporter that if her team won...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEGAN RAPINOE: I'm not going to the f***ing White House. No.

MADIGAN: Rapinoe later apologized for the expletive, but doubled down on the comment, saying she didn't want her team's platform, quote, "co-opted by an administration that doesn't fight for the same things we fight for," end quote. Her comments endeared her to some on the left but drew intense backlash from the right, for whom she's become a common subject of criticism. But that didn't silence Rapinoe. She's also been an outspoken critic of unequal pay between men and women in soccer. Here she is testifying in front of Congress in 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPINOE: We've filled stadiums, we've broken viewing records, we've sold out our jerseys - all the popular metrics by which we are judged. And yet, despite all of this, we're still paid less than our male counterparts.

MADIGAN: She and other players filed a claim of wage discrimination against U.S. Soccer in 2016 and then a lawsuit in 2019. Last year, the organization agreed to pay both their men's and women's teams equally. Becky Sauerbrunn says the attention Rapinoe brought to the issue was critical.

SAUERBRUNN: She's brought us alongside her and has encouraged us and educated us and told us like, be brave, live brave. And to me, like that is her legacy.

MADIGAN: Abby Wambach adds that Rapinoe's visibility as an out, gay soccer player has helped fans and athletes to unapologetically be who they are.

WAMBACH: Like, that's the thing that I'm so astonished at by her is that she's had such a successful career because she hasn't ever not been trying to be herself.

MADIGAN: Rapinoe's sense of humor remained intact throughout all the pomp and circumstance. In the postgame press conference, she was asked what was next. Smirking, Megan replied...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPINOE: Wouldn't you like to know?

MADIGAN: But on a more serious note, she explained that she hoped she could be a part of the growth of women's sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPINOE: I'm really looking forward to, you know, being sort of one of the business architects in this next phase.

MADIGAN: For NPR News, I'm Grace Madigan in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Grace Madigan