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In injury, in defeat, in retirement, Megan Rapinoe remains true to herself

Megan Rapinoe stands with Sue Bird after OL Reign's loss to Gotham FC in the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

No one can ever accuse Megan Rapinoe of following a well-trodden path, even in the final moments of her career. The pink-haired iconoclast, two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist wrote the final word in her illustrious career in a fashion no one could have expected, not even herself.

Her ending didn’t follow the fairytale story of the previous week. Instead, it went like this: She sat down in the sixth minute of Saturday’s NWSL Championship, shaking her head with a wry grin as she called for OL Reign’s trainers. She gingerly walked off the pitch in her final moments as a professional soccer player, having to watch on the sidelines as the Reign fell, 2-1, to Gotham FC.

“I wasn’t overly emotional about it,” Rapinoe said after the match of the moment immediately following the injury. “I mean, f—ing yeeted my Achilles in the sixth minute of my last game ever in the literal championship game.”

Rose Lavelle, a longtime Reign and U.S. women’s national teammate of Rapinoe, was the first person to reach her as she sat on the ground, shaking her head. Rapinoe didn’t mince words, telling Lavelle right away she was confident she had torn her right Achilles tendon.

“I think when she first said that, I said, ‘Are you effing joking me?” Lavelle told the media after the game.

After a week of buildup, wherein the battle of retiring legends in Rapinoe and Gotham defender Ali Krieger provided the banner headline for the 2023 NWSL Championship, only Krieger saw out the rest of the match. The two good friends shared a hug as Rapinoe left the field, before the restart of play required a refocus from both sides.

“I was just like, ‘You need to wrap that up and get back out here, so just take a couple minutes,’” Krieger said after the game. “I just feel so gutted for her. Honestly, I never thought that that would ever happen, and I feel so sad because you know football is such a risk, right? And you never know if it’s going to be your last game, your last moment.”

True to form, though, Rapinoe didn’t let herself hide away in the locker room while her team pushed to regain momentum. After being given a boot and crutches, she re-emerged on the sideline, cheering her teammates and giving tips even as she had to perch piggyback-style on the back of backup goalkeeper Laurel Ivory.

“I don’t wanna sit there and sulk on the bench,” Rapinoe said. “It’s not just any player going out, it’s me, and it’s my last game ever. So I just wanted to try to stay in it and keep it light, and I just wanted to be in it for myself too.”

The Reign almost completed the comeback twice, after falling behind first on a goal by Lynn Williams and then again by Esther González. Despite clearly dealing with shaken emotions, Rapinoe’s teammates stuck to their game plan, keeping the game in front of them until the very last minute of stoppage time.

The Seattle club’s title hopes remained alive in large part due to the play of Lavelle. The Reign midfielder broke the Gotham line with a piercing run in the first half, drawing Seattle level 1-1. She then played facilitator, breaking lines again with searching passes that her teammates couldn’t put in the back of the net. Even as Gotham sat deeper in their full-team defense, Lavelle could find spaces through her vision and her dribbling ability, which proved worthy of the appreciation of the 25,000-plus fans in attendance.

But in the chaotic final moments of second-half stoppage time, Lavelle herself couldn’t quite land a direct free kick from just outside the box. She was facing field player Nealy Martin in goal after Gotham keeper Amanda Haught received a red card due to intentionally handling the ball outside the penalty area.

“I just told her I was sorry we couldn’t get it done for her,” Lavelle said of Rapinoe. “And it’s just been such an honor to be able to share the field with her and sit next to her in the locker room.”

Rapinoe’s final moments as a professional might have not gone as she’d pictured, but they weren’t defined by her slow walk off the pitch, or by the Reign falling short. Her legacy remains the same, upheld by her willingness to immediately get back out in front of the crowd, and her teammates, to try to will them forward in any way she could.

“I think the energy Pinoe gave us was huge,” Lavelle said. “I can’t even imagine that moment in her head. And I think to still be having such a good attitude and cheering us on through it all was like, I mean, she’s amazing.”

OL Reign defender Lauren Barnes, Rapinoe’s club teammate of 11 years, agreed, saying: “I think you’d never expect something like this to happen, and it does. And she carries herself like she always has. She is the heart and soul of our club.”

In the aftermath of Rapinoe’s final game, her teammates reflected on her impact.

“You guys know,” Barnes said of the legacy of the leaders at the Reign, including herself, Rapinoe, and Jess Fishlock.. “You’ve been writing it for 11 years what our legacy is, and we just want to embody that, and we truly want to share it with the fans as much as we possibly can. So these [tears] are real. We love each other. So yeah, it’s hard and it’s gonna be different. It’s never the same now.”