Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.
When OL Reign contend for their first-ever NWSL championship on Saturday, they’ll be looking to close out an iconic era of the team’s existence on top.
As one of the NWSL’s founding clubs in 2013, the Reign have always been an outward example of stability. They’ve won three NWSL Shields, reached the championship game three times and made the playoffs six times. They’ve been coached by some of the most well-known names in the women’s game, including former USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski and current coach Laura Harvey. They’ve produced World Cup winners, attracted some of the best European talent available and become a home for a number of women’s soccer legends.
Going into Saturday’s matchup against Gotham FC, the Reign are lucky enough to have their entire ethos personified in one figure: Megan Rapinoe.
Rapinoe has played for the Reign since the team’s founding, first as a U.S. allocated player and then as a fully contracted player. She’s seen the team grow from humble beginnings, face multiple leadership changes, falter at times and win many games.
But she and the Reign have never won the NWSL Championship, and she’ll have one last chance to chase the trophy that has eluded her in her final professional game. She’s joined by fellow original Reign players Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes (both of whom are contracted to return in 2024) and Harvey, the team’s original manager. That Rapinoe, Fishlock and Barnes are all likely to start in the game is a testament to their competitive longevity and the team’s unfailing trust in their leaders.
Rapinoe is known worldwide for her international heroics, of which there are almost too many to mention.
There’s the famous cross to Abby Wambach in the semifinals of the 2011 World Cup, her Olimpico in the 2012 Olympic semifinal, her Golden Boot-winning World Cup campaign in 2019 and other small achievements that surround the iconic wins. Rapinoe became a lightning rod of attention, synonymous with the team’s successes, failures and off-field legacy. Her illustrious career with the USWNT ended with a sendoff game in September, following a muted final year for one of the most impactful players to ever grace the four-time World Cup champions’ roster.
Not only is Megan Rapinoe tearing apart this World Cup scoring goals, but don't forget she was the one that executed the insane cross eight years ago in Germany that allowed Abby Wambach to head home the tying goal in the 122nd minute against Brasil that kept the USWNT alive. pic.twitter.com/xfRgeKw0y2— Mark Dondero (@MarkDondero) June 29, 2019
Not only is Megan Rapinoe tearing apart this World Cup scoring goals, but don't forget she was the one that executed the insane cross eight years ago in Germany that allowed Abby Wambach to head home the tying goal in the 122nd minute against Brasil that kept the USWNT alive. pic.twitter.com/xfRgeKw0y2
But if Megan Rapinoe, international superstar, casts a larger-than-life figure over the game of women’s soccer, Rapinoe, Seattle Reign original, is a player firmly down to Earth.
The early days of the NWSL necessitated humility, as salaries and facilities in 2013 were a far cry from the consistent high-level support seen now. Rapinoe, alongside Harvey, Fishlock and Barnes, was known as a part of a Reign group that turned Memorial Stadium — the old, declining high school football venue — into a fortress, losing very few games at home during the team’s dominant run in 2014 and 2015.
And while the Reign changed over the years, in many ways for the better, Rapinoe remained. When Seattle Reign turned into Reign FC in 2019 and began playing games on a converted baseball field in the city of Tacoma, there was Rapinoe taking corner kicks near the outfield dirt. And when OL Reign made their triumphant return to the city of Seattle proper under the ownership of OL Groupe, playing under the bright lights of Lumen Field, Rapinoe was there. At that point, she could finally begin to collect her flowers from a fanbase that was at times disconnected from the team through their many moves.
“You cannot have this conversation without talking about Lu and Fish and Pinoe, and the players, the Steph Coxs, the Elli Reeds, and Keelin [Winters]. Like the backbone of who these people were that this club was built on, is also what makes it special,” OL Reign general manager Lesle Gallimore told Just Women’s Sports in June.
As the USWNT developed their run of international dominance in the late 2010s, with Rapinoe winning the Ballon d’Or in 2019, fans could make the trek to Reign games to see her up close in person. Her energy as a creative trickster with a rocket for a foot translated beautifully to the club game. She was known for taking quick throw-ins to gain an advantage, using her positioning to win fouls and turning every corner kick into a threat for the opposition. She reveled in the Reign’s fierce rivalry with the Portland Thorns and played every match with an authority and passion that earned the love and ire alike of NWSL fans.
The Megan Rapinoe of 2023 isn’t quite the firecracker that could take over a match in her heyday, but that player still comes out in flashes. After the team’s final regular season match against Chicago, she joked with Red Stars interim manager Ella Masar that she was ready to retire at halftime after a slow first half. Then she rattled off two quick goals right after the second-half whistle to seal the win and launch the Reign into fourth place. On one goal, she found an angle from the left wing that Harvey noted many players wouldn’t even try.
“She’s a joke,” Harvey said after that game. “Big players come up big in big moments, and she’s done it all of her career.”
Rapinoe also brought her off-field advocacy to the NWSL with the same authority. She supported good friend Ali Krieger (who will also play her last game Saturday with Gotham) when she and her family left the Washington Spirit after experiencing homophobia from the club, Krieger acknowledged years later. The first time Rapinoe knelt for the national anthem, an act she will likely always be remembered for, she wasn’t wearing a U.S. jersey; instead, she did so in front of a few thousand fans in Chicago before a Reign game.
Rapinoe will also be remembered as one of the players who won equal pay for the USWNT, but her track record of pushing for progress in the NWSL will leave a lasting legacy on the women’s game at home.
“I think I would always say the three amigos have been huge in creating that culture, and living that culture, and holding whoever sits in [leadership] seats accountable for that culture, to make sure that this place continues to be somewhere where people want to play,” Harvey said in June.
Harvey’s impression of the “three amigos” — Rapinoe, Fishlock and Barnes — is that they have held onto their roster spots not just for personal reasons, but also to make sure the club is ready for what comes after they leave. As 2023 comes to a close, the Reign are again for sale, moving on from their time under OL Groupe’s stewardship. Harvey is likely staying for the long term, after reportedly missing out on the USWNT head coaching position for the second straight cycle.
Despite some uncertainty around what the future holds, the Reign as they have been known aren’t going anywhere.
For Rapinoe, Saturday’s game serves as the last chapter of a one-of-a-kind career, with a title on the line. The legend didn’t get her perfect ending with the USWNT, but perhaps she was always meant to turn her final shining moment into one last opportunity for eyes to turn to Seattle.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.