USA star Megan Rapinoe announced her impending retirement ahead of the summer’s World Cup, igniting fevered predictions of a trophy-laden finale for the 38-year-old.
But where hopes of an historic three-peat on the international stage were dashed as Rapinoe skied her spot-kick in the dramatic Round of 16 penalty shoot-out loss to eventual third-place finishers Sweden, the 2019 Ballon d’Or winner is on a fierce mission to bid adieu to the sport she has helped craft in her image, and at times transcended, with a final piece of silverware.
To do so, Rapinoe will have to get through fellow USA star Alex Morgan first. The pair will meet in the NWSL’s semi-final playoff on Sunday as Rapinoe’s OL Reign meet Morgan’s San Diego Wave, who won this season’s NWSL Shield title, in a highly-anticipated clash of the titans.
While the semi-final will be littered with MVP finalists (of which Rapinoe will not be), it will prove a near impossible challenge to refrain from framing the match as the forward’s last dance, given the match’s prospect of being Rapinoe’s last-ever professional showing.
An NWSL record-crowd of 34,130 fans honoured her final regular-season home match, many of whom wore pig wigs in a nod to the Reign legend’s eccentric hairstyle.
Since the former Lyon forward’s bombshell announcement in the summer, her final season has been an exercise in career extension, stretching the ultimate finale week by week.
Rapinoe is one of the last of the OL Reign franchise’s original players from the inaugural 2013 season, and though she has helped the franchise to three NWSL Shield titles and two play-off finals, the Championship has proven an elusive elixir.And after doing away with the Hollywood-backed Angel City FC in the first-round of the play-offs, Rapinoe is one step closer to achieving that coveted final glory, with the reigning Shield winners her next opponents.
If any player has come to close to matching, or even eclipsing, Rapinoe’s footballing celebrity, Morgan cuts herself the convincing candidate. Both players have come to be icons of the sport in their own right and a final showdown between the pair to mark Rapinoe’s last competitive season is an undeniably tantalising affair.
After winning last season’s Golden Boot award, Morgan has struggled to impart her usual threat in front of goal, though she recently ended a career-long goal drought.
Rapinoe and Morgan have faced each other four times this season, twice in the league and twice in the NWSL Challenge Cup. The OL Reign emerged victorious in all four fixtures, touting an aggregate score of 7-1.Of course, play-off clashes are a different beast, with history and form largely becoming redundant in the face of such high-stakes jeopardy.
Rapinoe uncharacteristically struggled to cope under such pressure Down Under, with the forward’s botched spot-kick threatening to be her final action in the USA shirt in a cruel twist of fate for a player synonymous with its unprecedented world dominance.
The US Soccer Federation spared her such an ignominious ending, ensuring that her final send-off was one in front of a home crowd as the former reigning world champions dispatched South Africa 2-0 in September.
Rapinoe’s list of laurels runs silly long, with an honours collection that includes the 2019 World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot, FIFA’s Best Women’s Player (2019), Olympic Gold medallist, two-time World Cup winner, a Ballon d’Or and CONCACAF’s Woman Team of the Decade.
A NWSL Championship title might, in some corners, pale in comparison, but for the decade-long Reign faithful, no other ending would be so fitting.
The winner of Sunday’s semi-final will face the winner of Gotham City and Portland Thorns in the NWSL Championship match.