May 24, 2024

CHICAGO — U.S. women’s national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe said that her off-field accomplishments will have a deeper impact “by a mile” than what she achieved on the field.

Rapinoe, 38, will play her final game for the USWNT on Sunday in a friendly against South Africa at Soldier Field. She will finish with 203 international appearances and at least 63 goals for the U.S. In that time, she has been part of two World Cup-winning teams — in 2015 and 2019 — as well as one that claimed the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

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But Rapinoe has also been a staunch advocate of LGBTQIA+ rights and racial equality. And she was at the forefront of the ultimately successful push to achieve equal pay with their U.S. male counterparts at international level.

“I think, yeah, by and a mile, what we’ve done off of the field, I think that has made such a lasting impact,” she said during her final pre-match press conference for the USWNT on Saturday.

“I was actually talking to Becky [Sauerbrunn] on the bus today, and just to think of obviously where the program has grown and where the federation has grown and where we pushed the federation to grow the sport in general.”

She added: “I think we’ve been a big part of pushing, talking about whether it’s gay rights or racial justice or trans rights, more into every conversation around sports, in particular around women’s sports. We’ve been such a driver of that and have made that just as important as what we are doing on the field. I think we really believe it is just as important.”

Rapinoe said that using her platform to promote social justice causes was more of an evolution than the result of one particular moment. But she acknowledged that the increased profile the team enjoyed after the 2011 Women’s World Cup, as well as her own decision to come out as gay were definitely turning points.

“I think my experience of coming out and just after the World Cup leading into the Olympics was a big one, and just the reaction that I got, whether that was people coming up to me and saying how much that meant to them, or it gave them space to come out,” she said.

“I think I realized right then as the popularity of the team started to grow, that people came to see us, not just for what we were doing on the field, but they came to see themselves in us. And so how could we use that? How could we use the growing platform to fight for ourselves but also to fight for other people?”

That 2011 Women’s World Cup witnessed Rapinoe’s now famous cross to Abby Wambach to score a last-gasp U.S. equalizer against Brazil in the quarterfinals. Despite going on to lose the final to Japan, that moment thrust Rapinoe and the team more into the public eye.

“I think coming home from that first World Cup was a really eye-opening experience,” she said. “When we left, I think there was like 7,000 people at [New Jersey’s] Red Bull [Arena] and when we came back after not winning the World Cup, on all the morning shows and realizing that the game had changed very dramatically for everyone in this country for women’s soccer. So it’s kind of a combination, kind of an evolution, but if I had to pinpoint one thing, it was probably that cross.”

While acknowledging she has made mistakes in her career, Rapinoe said she doesn’t have any regrets given everything that she accomplished.

“I feel like I got the most out of my career,” she said. “I feel like I did my absolute best and maximized my talent and my sort of given gifts. I’ve had so much fun. I’ve enjoyed and celebrated along the way. I think that’s probably why I feel so at peace … I don’t think I’ve done everything right, but I’ve done everything the way that I wanted to and feel like I really got the most out of this career that I possibly could have gotten.”

Rapinoe grew emotional, shedding a few tears when the questions turned to the relationships with her teammates, especially U.S. and Portland Thorns defender Sauerbrunn, who Rapinoe has known since they were 16.

“We spend more time here than we do with our family or our partners, our loved ones. So it is really special when you find people in this environment that you really do click with,” Rapinoe said.

The veteran added that expressing joy, both on and off the field, is part of her legacy, and could even be viewed as a form of resistance to the restrictions some segments of public sought to place on her.

“I think a lot of times my joy, or expressions of joy was absolutely an act of resistance or a big glaring sort of middle finger to everyone,” she said. “Like this is my life, and this is my career and I get to do with it what I want to do with it. And we get to express ourselves the way that we want to express ourselves. I think the team not only has a right to do that, but has earned that right to do that.

“And I think it’s something that has always been kind of a secret weapon for this team of showing up and being serious and being a certain way when we need to. But also just like this is a game, and we know we’re lucky to play it, and we’re going to get every single thing out of it that we can. We’re going to celebrate in moments that we feel like we deserve that celebration, whether we win just a game or we won the whole thing or moved on to the next round of a tournament.

“I think you can’t go back and enjoy any of these moments. So [if] you don’t do it in the moment, it’s just gone. And I think that’s something that we’ve tried to, as older players, have tried to pass on to the younger players as well.”

As she prepares to depart, Rapinoe insisted there are brighter days ahead for the USWNT, even in the wake of the team’s round of 16 exit from the this year’s Women’s World Cup. No one knew who she was when the USWNT was the domain of Wambach and others, she said. And now that it’s her turn to move on, Rapinoe is confident the team is in similarly good hands.

“I’m so excited for them. This team has a crazy amount of talent and potential and just good kids,” she said. “Obviously going through the World Cup this year was not the results that we wanted, but I feel like what I saw in terms of character and work ethic and the growing culture of the team is really amazing. Everybody wants to be the best and everybody wants to be there and give what they can to the team.”

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