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In World Cup heartbreak, USWNT passes the torch to next golden era

Megan Rapinoe and Trinity Rodman walk off the field after the USWNT's loss in the Round of 16. (Alex Grimm - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Megan Rapinoe buried her blue hair in the crook of Lynn Williams’ neck, simultaneously shedding tears and cracking a smile. Crying because it’s over, and smiling because it happened.

The 38-year-old’s U.S. women’s national team career came to a screeching halt on a missed penalty kick. In a cruel twist of fate, the team was eliminated after their best performance of the World Cup, a 5-4 penalty shootout defeat to Sweden in the Round of 16 on Sunday.

“I thought we played really well,” Rapinoe said. “I’m so happy for us that we went out like that, playing the way that we did and having a ton of joy on the ball.”

After a flat group stage that saw the U.S. finish in second place in Group E to move onto the knockout rounds, they finally brought the spark they’ve been known for. But a spark wasn’t enough. They needed a goal in regulation, or in extra time. They needed one more made penalty kick, or one more save.

They didn’t get it.

Instead, Sweden handed the USWNT their earliest exit in World Cup history.

“It’s an emotional time,” said U.S. veteran Julie Ertz. “It absolutely sucks. Penalties are the worst, but it’s an honor to represent this team and I’m excited for the future.”

The future will look a lot different.

There are new teams in contention: Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco and Jamaica made it out of the group stage for the first time. Other mainstays endured early exits: Marta and Brazil, Christine Sinclair and Canada, the second-ranked German squad, and now, Rapinoe and the U.S.

The loss also marks the end of Rapinoe’s U.S. Soccer career, after she announced her retirement prior to the World Cup. One of the most decorated soccer players in American history, Rapinoe leaves behind a legacy on the field that includes a 2019 World Cup victory, a Golden Boot, a Ballon d’Or trophy and 63 international goals.

Off the field, her impact has been even greater. As an outspoken supporter of equal pay and LGBTQ+ rights, Rapinoe received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work in July 2022.

That part of Rapinoe won’t change, but her place in the landscape of international soccer will. Her spot on the 2023 USWNT was called into question during the lead-up to the World Cup, but coach Vlatko Andonovski clearly trusted the veteran, subbing her into the match against Sweden and calling on her during penalty kicks.

Rapinoe’s attempt soared over the goal, marking an unfortunate end to an incredible career.

“I mean, this is like a sick joke,” she told FOX Sports. “For me personally, I’m just like, this is a dark comedy. I missed a penalty.”

Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan and goalie Alyssa Naeher all found the back of the net. Kelley O’Hara, another player in the twilight of her USWNT career, missed her penalty kick as well, opening the door for Sweden to finish the job.

But it wasn’t just the veterans who failed to capitalize. Sophia Smith, who scored two goals in the team’s World Cup opening 3-0 win over Vietnam, also sent her attempt over the goal.

Smith represents the future of the USWNT, and Rapinoe, the past. Two generations united by heartache in the pressure cooker that is a penalty kick shootout.

The official changing of the guard starts now.

While Smith and the other USWNT youngsters have opportunities ahead of them and memories yet to be made, this is it for Rapinoe.

It might be for Alex Morgan, too.

“I don’t know,” she told FOX Sports, in response to a question about her future with the team. “I was so focused on the World Cup that I don’t know. I need to get back to San Diego, get back to work, go from there.”

Ertz also alluded to the end of her career in a postgame interview.

“For me, it’s just emotional because it’s probably my last game ever to have the honor to wear this crest,” she said.

This possibly marks the end of Andonovski’s tenure. The earliest exit in team history — combined with persistent questions about his coaching — is hard to come back from.

And this might have been both the first and last World Cup for others. Players like Mewis, who converted a penalty kick in her tournament debut. And Sofia Huerta, who worked for so long to represent the USWNT at this level, only to leave with just a few minutes recorded in the group stage.

It’s the beginning for Trinity Rodman, who battled illness to play arguably her best game of the tournament. And for Naomi Girma, who was an anchor on the backline, playing with maturity beyond her years. And Alyssa Thompson, who at 18 already has world-class talent. And for players like Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson, who missed out on playing in New Zealand and Australia because of injury, but will be key pieces to the USWNT for years to come.

Defender Naomi Girma had a stellar World Cup debut for the USWNT. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

They will remember this as they take the next steps in their soccer careers, and certainly four years from now, when they most likely step on the pitch for another World Cup.

They will remember the missed chances — 22 shots, with 11 on goal, and nine corner kicks. Remember the incredible play by Naeher, who not only saved penalties but made one herself.

And they will remember the veterans who played alongside them, and the lessons they learned from those who have experienced all the emotions that come with a World Cup win, and the ones that come with a loss.

“This is the balance to the beautiful side of the game,” Rapinoe said with tears in her eyes. “It can be cruel.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.