CARSON, Calif. — Megan Rapinoe settled onto a ledge in the California sunshine, her blue hair gleaming, her body a tad fatigued. It had been another long morning as the face of the U.S. women’s national team. Another round of interviews to shape her sport one word at a time. She began at a podium alongside Alex Morgan. Hours later, she sidled into a Dignity Health Sports Park suite. She was instructed to stand on an “X” and face a camera, but then she asked: “Can I sit?”
Working multiple jobs, after all, can be tiring. Rapinoe is a soccer player, but also a spokesperson, businesswoman and social justice advocate. “At times,” she admitted, all the fighting — with U.S. Soccer, and FIFA, and the patriarchy, and a broadly unjust society — has been “incredibly exhausting.”
But at other times, she’ll pause, and look around.
She’ll survey everything that the fights have yielded, multifaceted progress throughout her sport, and often, she said, “I don’t even have to pause and reflect, it just kinda smacks you in the face.” She sees it, for example, in the dozens of reporters and cameras that packed into the USWNT’s pre-World Cup media day — which, ahead of her first World Cup in 2011, didn’t exist. She saw it Sunday in the sell-out crowd that sent her team off to the 2023 World Cup — whereas in 2011, they played in front of 5,852 fans and 20,000 empty seats.
She sees it, change, everywhere.
“It certainly hits my bank account every month,” she said with a chuckle. “It’ll be in off-field sponsorships, it’ll be in Champions League final attendance, it’ll be in games at the Camp Nou, or games at the Emirates, or games in Mexico, whatever it is. We’re kind of seeing it happen in real time, and it’s hard not to be struck by it.”
She knows, of course, that “there’s still so much to fight for,” that battles have been won but the war for gender equality is ongoing. She sees that, too, all across the globe, and “it’s infuriating, to be honest.” Her team earned equal pay, but peers in Canada and Jamaica, in South Africa and elsewhere, are still pushing for it — or for better working conditions, or for basic respect. FIFA and sponsors still invest multiples more in the men’s World Cup than the women’s World Cup. And that’s the thing with inequality, “it runs in the background,” Rapinoe said. “That’s the current of the river. So, we’re definitely still swimming upstream, we’re pushing the boulder up, which is frustrating.”
She also knows, though, that her swim is almost over — and that the time to pass the proverbial torch has come.
She’s known for a while now that the 2023 World Cup will be her last. And so, even before she announced her impending retirement on Saturday, she said she’d “made a concerted effort” to step back from the spotlight and cede it to her successors. She knows part of her role on this 2023 team is to prime them. She doesn’t know who, exactly, the successors will be, but in a late-June interview, she rattled off five names — Sophia Smith, Alyssa Thompson, Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma, Alana Cook — and expressed her utmost confidence in them.
“They’re all so much further along [than my generation], more educated and better able and better equipped to kind of take the mantle,” Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports.
“I mean, it’s big shoes to fill,” she added. “But they all got big feet.”
“They’re all so much further along [than my generation], more educated and better able and better equipped to kind of take the mantle. I mean, it’s big shoes to fill. But they all got big feet.”Megan Rapinoe
Rapinoe’s evolving role as ‘massive public icon’ and team leader
Ceding spotlights is not something Rapinoe has found particularly easy since the summer of 2019. All while suing U.S. Soccer and verbally sparring with the planet’s most powerful human — “ostensibly,” Rapinoe interjected with a smile; “in theory” — she won the World Cup’s Golden Boot and Golden Ball, plus her second world title, and soared into a new stratosphere of fame. She graced magazine covers and red carpets. She dabbled in politics and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. “After 2019,” she said, “everything just changed dramatically.”
Even to new teammates, she was no longer just “Megan” or “Pinoe.” She was also Megan Rapinoe, and that took some getting used to.
“She’s this massive public icon,” goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury said. Young 20-somethings now come into USWNT camp and revere her.
“And then after, like, two seconds, we’re dapping it up and we’re cool,” Rapinoe explained. “But there’s a different presence, I think — same with Alex, same with Becky [Sauerbrunn].”
Even Kingsbury, who’s 31, remembers being “really shocked” by how Rapinoe was “just a great, average human, in a sense — while she’s really superhuman.”
It is with a deep sense of peace & gratitude that I have decided this will be my final season playing this beautiful game. I never could have imagined the ways in which soccer would shape & change my life forever, but by the look on this little girl’s face, she knew all along. pic.twitter.com/XGZ1T9i7Wy
— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) July 8, 2023
Her comedic, disarming personality allows her to connect with the kiddos. The disconnect, now, is between the size of Rapinoe’s public persona and her on-field role. She has battled niggling injuries over the past two seasons. She’s been displaced in the starting 11 by Smith and Mal Swanson, and now likely by Rodman. U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski frequently hails Rapinoe’s talent, but it’s clear that her primary task at her final World Cup will be to lead.
She will lead, in part, with her voice, behind the scenes but also in front of cameras. She is the team’s most confident and competent public speaker. She either enjoys or tolerates interviews more than most. They are opportunities, but also responsibilities, burdens that Rapinoe shoulders. In many cases, teammates are more than happy to let her take them on.
But she also knows there’ll come a time when the new on-field stars must face the cameras. Some of them remark to Rapinoe that she’s “so good with media,” but she tells them: “Yeah, [because] I do it all the time. It’s practiced. I prepare myself. I learn these things so that, when the camera’s here, we’re in a mixed zone, it’s not like I’m just pulling stuff from thin air. It’s preparation meets the moment.”
“And I think it’s important to step into those moments,” Rapinoe continued. It’s what she began to do a decade ago, and now, she said, “I think I have tried to allow [other] players to step into it more.”
Leaving a legacy of change while empowering the next generation
None of this is to say that Megan Rapinoe is finished. She is still an on-field weapon that Andonovski will use Down Under. She’ll continue to be an off-field force for decades to come, long after her playing career ends this fall, as long as she wants.
But she doesn’t shy away from reflection.
“I do sometimes just think how special it is to be a part of this generation of players in the U.S., particularly the U.S. national team players — Becky, Alex, Kelley [O’Hara], Carli [Lloyd], Tobin [Heath], Christen [Press], myself, I’m sure I’m leaving people out,” she said. “That generation of players, we made a pretty significant mark on the game, and just the world in general. It’s something that I think we’re all really proud of.”
I do sometimes just think how special it is to be a part of this generation of players in the U.S., particularly the U.S. national team players … we made a pretty significant mark on the game, and just the world in general. It’s something that I think we’re all really proud of.Megan Rapinoe
Now, or soon, it’ll be the next generation’s turn, and Rapinoe will volunteer to help however she can — because “this team means so much to all of us,” she said. But in many ways, her work is already done.
Change-making is a USWNT legacy that predates Rapinoe. It’s “the expectation, which I guess can come with a little bit of pressure,” she admitted. “But it’s like, yeah, this is what we do.” The flip side of pressure is precedent. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Rapinoe said. “You just have to keep fighting for progress. You just have to keep fighting for yourself.” Her generation won their biggest fight, for a lucrative CBA that could make them the best-paid national soccer team in the world. But along the way, they also laid a foundation that will ease the burden on their successors.
It’s a tangible foundation that manifests in the USWNT’s strong players’ association. And globally, “the whole landscape and business around the sport has dramatically changed in a way that makes it so much easier for everyone to step in and keep pushing for progress,” Rapinoe said.
It’s also intangible. Girma felt it even before she became the next in line.
“Me being at Stanford, and speaking out about important social justice issues, was a big result of me seeing the national team doing that,” Girma said last month. “Being able to have them as role models growing up, and seeing how they use their platforms, inspired me to be like, ‘OK, I know I’m in college, maybe not as big of a platform, but I still have a voice, and I can use it.’”
It is not Rapinoe’s place to tell them how to use those voices, or what to fight for, once she’s gone. “Each generation has their own particular grievances, or inequalities, that they have to deal with,” she explained. “And they know those best. We don’t know exactly what those are gonna be.
“But,” she continued, “they can call on the ones from before, use the same language, use the same rhetoric. That’s what we’ve done the whole time. We hark back to the 99ers, and what they had to go through, and the way they conducted themselves. And I think this generation of players coming after us will be able to do the same with us.”