‘Like a sick joke’: Cruel USWNT ending for Megan Rapinoe

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Megan Rapinoe’s storybook World Cup career ended “just like a sick joke.”

It gave her the highest of highs, trophies and celebrity, memories and indescribable joy, but it ended here at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium with what she later called “dark humor.”

She’d stepped up to a penalty spot, a location she’d mastered throughout her decades in soccer. She strode toward a stationary ball, with an opportunity to give the U.S. a commanding shootout lead over Sweden. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I missed a penalty,” she later said, so there was only one thought in her mind: “I’m gonna score. Back of the net. Always.”

But then she opened up her hips and sliced the ball skyward.

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Her shoulders sank as she turned away. Her head dropped toward Earth.

And then, amid the bitter disappointment, she smiled.

“You gotta be f***ing kidding me,” she thought. “I’m gonna miss a penalty?”

Emotion began to grip her an hour after the USWNT’s 5-4 penalty shootout loss to Sweden as she reflected on her career in a chilly post-match interview zone. She’d announced prior to the World Cup that this one, her fourth, would be her last. So she spoke about gratitude and pride. “I’ve just loved every bit of my career, and I’ll miss it to death,” she said. “But, yeah, it also feels like the right time.”

But then, before those emotions could fully seize her, she broke into a laugh, as if to stave them off.

Megan Rapinoe missed the final penalty shot of her iconic World Cup career. (Photo by Alex Grimm - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe missed the final penalty shot of her iconic World Cup career. (Photo by Alex Grimm – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

That’s when she saw the “dark humor.”

“And I joke too often, always in the wrong places and inappropriately, so maybe this is a ‘haha’ at the end,” she said. “I don’t know. Seems funny.”

“Nobody’s gonna laugh because you guys feel bad,” she told a throng of reporters. “But it’s kinda funny.” And again, she smiled.

It was hardly funny to teammates, or to U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski, all of whom spoke glowingly about their longtime leader and felt for her. They’d shared final hugs on the field as Rapinoe covered her face and wiped away tears.

Lindsey Horan told her: “I love you.”

Alex Morgan thanked her, for everything.

“Megan Rapinoe’s a legend,” Andonovski said. “If I had my life on the line right now, and I had to pick who’s gonna take the penalty, Megan Rapinoe’s gonna be my first choice. No. 1 in the world. No question about it.”

Rapinoe thought that she hadn’t missed since 2018, in an NWSL game against the Washington Spirit. In the interim, she’d buried penalties at the 2019 World Cup, and led the USWNT to a second straight title. Overall, her World Cup résumé is untouchable.

And her legacy?

“That’s why you have a job,” she told a packed room of reporters last week. But then she got introspective.

“I’ve always tried to play the game the right way, and to go about things the right way,” she said. “I’ve always tried to use whatever platform we have — and this platform, obviously, was built long before I got here, we just continued to add to it — to grow the game, to make the world a better place, to use our voices, to advocate for more. … Being a women’s professional athlete, we sorta know what the injustices are that we have felt, and so I think it makes it easy for us to then be an ally in other ways. That’s the real legacy, the most important legacy of this team, at least.”

And it was built here, at the World Cup. It was built in 2011, when Rapinoe burst onto the scene and helped change women’s soccer forever. It was built in 2015 with a title, and built in 2019 with swagger and social conscience unlike anything the sport has ever seen.

And then, in 2023, it ended suddenly, without any of that.

Megan Rapinoe is consoled by her mother Denise Rapinoe after the USWNT's loss to Sweden at the 2023 Women's World Cup. (Photo by Alex Grimm - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe is consoled by her mother Denise Rapinoe after the USWNT’s loss to Sweden at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. (Photo by Alex Grimm – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Most World Cup careers, of course, do end in defeat and despair. Marta’s did with Brazil this past week, and Christine Sinclair’s did with Canada. “It’s emotional,” Horan said, and the weakness in her voice did too. “Those are some of the greatest football players of all time. Players that I’ve looked up to. … It’s hard, as a woman football player, to see these guys exiting like this.”

And in a way, it deprived Rapinoe of one last shining moment. Immediately after her miss, Alyssa Naeher sprung to her left to make an outstanding save, and put the U.S. one conversion away from victory. But Sophia Smith also missed. Kelley O’Hara later did too. They lost by a margin of millimeters, and all sorts of messy emotions flooded them as they lingered on the field, blocking any further introspection.

Rapinoe, though, had “been reflecting from time to time, even during the tournament,” she said. “It’s hard not to. I mean, I’m trying to stay in the moment, but things sort of crop up.”

So she was sad, but emotionally prepared.

“This is life,” she said. “I wish we were moving on and I could guarantee a championship, and do all that. But, I feel like it doesn’t take away anything from this experience, or my career in general. I feel so lucky, and so grateful to play as long as I have, and been on the successful teams that I have, and be a part of a very special generation of players, who have done so much on and off the field. It would be hard to feel disappointed in any type of way.

“Obviously, [there’s] immediate disappointment of being out of the tournament,” she acknowledged. “But I think in general — yeah, I’m OK. I’m ready, in a lot of ways, to be done. And I feel at peace with that.”

And the penalty, her last kick of a World Cup ball?

“I would step up and take another one now,” she said — “if I could.”

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