The U.S. women’s national team is back in camp this week, playing two friendlies against Colombia as they continue to navigate the post-World Cup era without a permanent head coach. Perhaps ironically, some of the biggest names in American soccer in 2023 — Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger — won’t be taking part in those games, not due to injury but because they’ve moved on from national duty.
For a long time, contract structures and consistency of competition dictated that players usually ended their careers with international play in mind. They typically considered themselves USWNT players first and club players second.
But the ongoing pursuit of a final NWSL trophy for retiring stars indicates just how far the world of women’s soccer has come from that attitude. Both Rapinoe (OL Reign) and Krieger (Gotham FC) will want to ride out their NWSL postseasons as long as they possibly can.
Rapinoe got to control the narrative surrounding her USWNT exit. The legendary forward announced she’d be retiring from both club and country at the end of 2023 after former USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski made it clear she was in his plans for this year’s World Cup. Teammate Julie Ertz followed a similar trajectory but chose not to finish out the NWSL season with Angel City, the club she joined on a one-year contract after a long hiatus from professional soccer.
Krieger had a less ceremonious final few years with the national team, returning from a strangely imposed exile by Jill Ellis to help the U.S. secure a fourth World Cup in 2019. She also faded away during the Andonovski era, playing in her final match with the team in January 2021. The defender nonetheless continued progressing as a player in the NWSL, from which she plans to retire at the end of this season.
Krieger’s move from Orlando to Gotham for a fresh start in 2022 also didn’t go quite as planned, with the team struggling to score and sliding to last place in the NWSL standings by the end of the season. But one of the bright spots of an otherwise difficult season was Krieger’s increased comfort at center back. Later into her career, the 39-year-old has shifted centrally to maintain a steady pace of play.
Positioning in the central defense is something that takes time to develop, and Krieger’s penchant for the position emerged in slow motion. But her success in 2023 has her on the shortlist for NWSL Defender of the Year, giving brand-new life to a career that is nearing its end.
In a way, Krieger’s moment in the spotlight at the end of 2023 is a sign to players who don’t get to write their own USWNT ending that there is still meaning to retiring at the league level. Other players with similar stories who greatly impacted their team’s seasons were Angel City’s Sydney Leroux and Houston’s Jane Campbell. Also notable for next year will be the final club season of Canadian legend Christine Sinclair, who plans to retire from international play at the end of this year.
This mindset shift has a lot to do with the way player contracts with U.S. Soccer have drastically changed in recent years. The USWNT ratified their historic CBA in 2022, earning the exact same wages and benefits as their male counterparts for the same amount of work.
But the CBA change also moved the team away from the safety net of longer-term contracts, which the team had operated under for over a decade. Players theoretically now find themselves less entrenched in the USWNT system, making far more money per appearance than they were in the past, but no longer tying their long-term salaries to their place on the national team. This means less job security at the international level, which shifts a player’s home base to their club.
This has fortunately coincided with rising wages in the women’s club game, both in the NWSL and abroad. Players can now envision themselves having long careers in domestic play, as opposed to primarily on the national team. Playing for the USWNT is a dream for many players, but if that pinnacle is never reached or not held for very long, it doesn’t have to spell the end of a fulfilling, winning soccer career.
Even players who are still with the U.S. can feel the shift and tone. San Diego Wave superstar Alex Morgan made it clear earlier this year that she wanted to miss as few games as possible for her club, a mission that ultimately led the team to the NWSL Shield in 2023. That sentiment was echoed throughout the USWNT player pool, most recently by Lynn Williams in defense of the Challenge Cup. Players understand the balance necessary to compete at both levels, but a renewed intensity by the best players in the league paid dividends in the most competitive season in NWSL history.
There might be a pause in the NWSL postseason during this international break, but Rapinoe and Krieger should feel pretty good about their chances to go all the way. Quarterfinalists tend to do well in the league’s expanded postseason format, with three of the last four finalists entering the playoffs as quarterfinalists.
Both Rapinoe’s OL Reign and Krieger’s Gotham FC looked ready for the cagey chess matches that make up knockout soccer in their quarterfinal wins. Rapinoe and Krieger were also instrumental in their teams reaching the postseason itself, with Rapinoe scoring a brace and Krieger making a goal-line save on Decision Day.
In addition to tactics, they benefit from the galvanizing force that overcomes a team when they want to send an esteemed colleague out on a high. Much has been made of Rapinoe’s attempts to win her first NWSL Championship — the Reign made the finals in 2014 and 2015 before enduring a long road of futility that resulted in their first playoff win in eight years in the 2023 quarterfinals. Krieger has been similarly close, losing the 2016 championship by the the closest margin in soccer, a penalty shootout.
Rapinoe and Krieger have the opportunity to go head-to-head to finish their respective careers with a storybook ending, but they have one more game to get through first. For now, they’ll wait while teammates handle international duty and return refreshed with the finish line in sight.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.