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Megan Rapinoe plays her last regular season home game in Seattle

OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe blows a kiss during a ceremony honoring her career, after the team's NWSL soccer match against the Washington Spirit on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in Seattle. The Spirit and the Reign played to a scoreless draw in Rapinoe's final regular-season home game before her retirement at the end of the season.
Lindsey Wasson
/
AP
OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe blows a kiss during a ceremony honoring her career, after the team's NWSL soccer match against the Washington Spirit on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in Seattle. The Spirit and the Reign played to a scoreless draw in Rapinoe's final regular-season home game before her retirement at the end of the season.

One of soccer's greatest stars will retire this fall, at the end of the National Women's Soccer League season. Known for her talent on the field and activism off it, Megan Rapinoe has been an outsized figure in women's soccer. Friday night was her last regular season home game in Seattle with the OL Reign, the team she's played with for her entire 11-year NWSL career.

Celebrating the star were 34,000 fans at Seattle's Lumen field, breaking the NWSL attendance record.

Outside the stadium before kickoff, fans could get face paint, make signs, and get their hair sprayed pink in honor of Rapinoe and the hairstyle she wore when the U.S. won the 2019 World Cup.

Harper Womack, 8, attended the game with her grandparents and her soccer team. She said Rapinoe is her favorite player.

"I just like how fearless she is and how she's not scared to be in front of a bunch of people," Womack said.

That sentiment was echoed by other fans like Em Piro.

Fans wear pink wigs and stickers with the number of OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe during the first half of an NWSL soccer match between the Reign and the Washington Spirit, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in Seattle.
Lindsey Wasson / AP
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AP
Fans wear pink wigs and stickers with the number of OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe during the first half of an NWSL soccer match between the Reign and the Washington Spirit, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in Seattle.

"She's iconic," Piro said. "She's such a larger-than-life person in a lot of ways, who also just comes across as very, like, accessible and warm and someone you're kind of, like, proud to have in your hometown."

In a news conference before her last home game with the OL Reign in Seattle, Rapinoe reflected on how this goodbye felt different from the one with the U.S. Women's National Team. Unlike the national team, which has an ever-changing roster of players and coaches, the Reign has remained a home base she could always count on.

"This feels like I'm saying goodbye to my team," Rapinoe said. "I'm saying goodbye to my coach. I'm saying goodbye to, you know, so many players that I have played with for a long time."

Before Rapinoe joined the Reign in 2013, she had been making a name for herself on the field with the national team.

She had been playing professionally for just a short time when her career was launched to a new level at the Women's World Cup in 2011. Her last-second assist in the quarterfinals to Abby Wambach tied the game with Brazil and became an iconic moment in soccer history.

"Oh man, what a freakin' moment," said Abby Wambach, describing the play in a recent interview. Wambach, the all-time leading U.S. goal scorer in international soccer, says that Rapinoe's kick, which sailed across the field to her, was perfect. "It was a much better cross than it was a goal. Everybody who knows and watches and plays soccer knows that."

From there, Rapinoe's prominence as a soccer player ramped up. In 2012, she helped the U.S. win gold at the Olympics. In 2015, she was part of the team that won the U.S. its first Women's World Cup since 1999. In 2019, she was co-captain for the U.S. team whenthey won the Women's World Cup again. Rapinoe is ranked among thetop 10 in U.S. Women's National Team history when it comes to both goals and assists.

"For me, she's top," says Becky Sauerbrunn, a veteran of the U.S. Women's National Team. "You say Mia Hamm. You can say Michelle Akers. And then I would put Megan Rapinoe right up there."

Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe met at a youth national team camp when they were teenagers.

"I would say from very early on, just her vision on the field, and the ability to execute what she wants to do" made her unique, Sauerbrunn said. "So like her technique ... the way that she can whip in free kicks, that way she can whip in crosses, like there's a texture to it that you don't see a lot of people able to hit."

President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Megan Rapinoe, soccer player and advocate for gender pay equality, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Megan Rapinoe, soccer player and advocate for gender pay equality, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.

Rapinoe has become almost equally well known as an advocate for progressive political issues – including LGBTQ+ rights, racial equity, and equal pay for women in sports.

Meg Linehan has covered women's soccer extensively for The Athletic and says that Rapinoe began to emerge as an activist in 2016 when she knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The action stirred up controversy, with some applauding Rapinoe for speaking out and others calling her actions disrespectful.

Linehan notes that despite all the attention Rapinoe got for her protest, it wasn't until in 2019 that she really exploded — becoming not just a famous women's soccer player, but famous, period.

That's because during the World Cup that year, she got into a very public feudwith then-President Donald Trump, after telling a reporter that if her team won, "I'm not going to the ******* White House."

"Being in a strange battle with the former president, right, like there was this sense of this explosion of interest from a world outside of women's soccer," says Linehan.

Rapinoe later apologized for the expletive, but doubled down on the comment — saying she didn't want her team's platform "co-opted by an administration ... that doesn't fight for the same things we fight for." Her comments endeared her to some on the left, but drew intense backlash from the right, for whom she's become a common subject of criticism.

"There has just been a whole population of people waiting for Rapinoe to fail," says Linehan. "And there is a human cost to that. ... I don't want to erase that, because I think that is something that she has had to deal with."

But that hasn't silenced Rapinoe, who's also been an outspoken critic of unequal pay between men and women in soccer. She and other players filed a claim of wage discrimination against U.S. Soccer in 2016. And a few years after that, she and 27 other members of the national team sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination (they ultimatelywon $24 million in a settlement). In 2021, she testified in front of Congress about the issue.

"We've filled stadiums, we've broken viewing records, we've sold out our jerseys, all the popular metrics by which we are judged. And yet, despite all of this, we are still paid less than our male counterparts," she said.

In 2022, U.S. Soccer agreed to pay both their men's and women's teams equally.

Later that same year, Rapinoe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Joe Biden, who praised herfor helping to lead the change for "perhaps the most important victory for anyone on her soccer team or any soccer team: equal pay for women."

Becky Sauerbrunn — who was part of the wage discrimination claim and the lawsuit — says the attention Rapinoe brought to the issue was critical.

"She's brought us alongside her and has encouraged us and educated us and told us like, be brave, live brave. And to me like that, that is her legacy," Sauerbrunn said.

Wambach adds that Rapinoe's visibility as an out, gay soccer player has helped fans and athletes to unapologeticaly be who they are.

"The thing that I am so astonished at by her is that she's had such a successful career because she hasn't ever not been trying to be herself," Wambach said.

Last night's match ended in an anti-climatic tie with the Washington Spirit. But that didn't put a damper on the night. After the game, Rapinoe's friends, family, and teammates gathered in the middle of the field to hear from the star herself. Fans stuck around chanting Rapinoe's name.

OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe acknowledges the crowd as coach Laura Harvey (from left), defender Lauren Barnes, and midfielder Jess Fishlock stand nearby during a ceremony honoring her career, after the team's NWSL soccer match against the Washington Spirit on Friday.
Lindsey Wasson / AP
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AP
OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe acknowledges the crowd as coach Laura Harvey (from left), defender Lauren Barnes, and midfielder Jess Fishlock stand nearby during a ceremony honoring her career, after the team's NWSL soccer match against the Washington Spirit on Friday.

"Takes a lot to make me uncomfortable ... success," Rapinoe joked. "Thank you so much to all the fans who showed up, this is what we've wanted for so long."

"I am at a little bit at a loss for words. I don't know who to thank other than every single person. It's been such an incredible journey," Rapinoe said.

Rapinoe's sense of humor remained intact throughout all the pomp and circumstance. In the post game news conference she was asked what was next. Smirking, Megan replied, "Wouldn't you like to know ... "

But on a more serious note, she explained that she hoped she could be a part of the growth of women's sports.

"I'm really looking forward to, you know, being sort of one of the business architects in this next space," Rapinoe said.

More than anything, she said, she's looking forward to resting.

The OL Reign will have the opportunity to qualify for playoffs next weekend when they play the Chicago Red Stars.

Copyright 2023 KNKX Public Radio

Grace Madigan
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