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Megan Rapinoe was a great advocate. But was she a great player?

The World Cup winner’s impact off the field was undeniable. As her final game approaches, it’s time to assess her as an athlete

When Megan Rapinoe’s boots grace the field at Snapdragon Stadium for the NWSL final this Saturday, they will do so for the last time in her career.

Should OL Reign, where she has played for 11 seasons, win the championship in San Diego, she will have clinched the one major trophy to have eluded her.

The 38-year-old announced her intention to retire this year but her international farewell did not go as planned: the US crashed out of the Women’s World Cup in the last 16, the team’s worst finish in a tournament that Rapinoe has won twice with her country.

Despite that disappointment, the tributes to Rapinoe have – apart from certain sections of a polarized America – been glowing. But most of the praise has been focused on her effects off the field, where she has been an advocate for gay rights, social justice and equal pay in soccer.Indeed, Rapinoe herself has highlighted those same areas. Before her final regular-season match at Lumen Field in Seattle last month, Rapinoe said: “I’m of course proud of my career and what I’ve been able to do on the field. But I’m very proud of all the stuff off the field and just the way that my career has impacted people or challenged people or, you know, given people the opportunity to see themselves in a more full way.”

Yet while advocacy defines large parts of her career – and will surely headline her all but certain induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame – it would be remiss not to assess Rapinoe with the ball at her feet, opponents at her back and the clock winding down.

Was Rapinoe the greatest female American player of all time in pure playing terms? Almost certainly not. She did not have the longevity of Kristine Lilly, who won 354 caps for the US over 23 years. Or the 184 goals scored by Abby Wambach. Or the technical ability of players such as Mia Hamm, Carli Lloyd or Rose Lavelle. Perhaps she could be compared to David Beckham, another player with brilliant set-piece skills and a knack for rising to the big moments, but whose celebrity often shone brighter than his ability.

That’s not to say she wasn’t an outstanding player. In many ways, Rapinoe the footballer mirrored Rapinoe the advocate: she was unflappable. The one aberration came in her final competitive game for the US, when she missed her spot-kick in the penalty shootout loss to Sweden. Other than that Rapinoe had a quality legendary athletes often exude: a confidence and drive to win that bordered on the obsessive. A confidence that seemed to give her the ability to will her team to victory.

Nowhere was that better exemplified than in that cross in extra time of the USA’s 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. Trailing to As Canarinhas with time running out, Rapinoe raced down the left wing and launched a perfectly placed ball on to Wambach’s head to send the game to penalties. The US went on to reach the final, where they lost to Japan. Not bad for her first World Cup.

Four years later, Rapinoe was again integral to her team’s effort. In America’s opening match against Australia, some believed the Matildas would upset the US. But Rapinoe made an early mark as she conjured two goals and helped set up Christen Press for another, to come away with a tone-setting 3-1 victory.

Those goals were emblematic of her ability. With her first, Rapinoe won the ball, beguiled a glut of defenders on the dribble, then ripped a shot into the far right corner. Her second saw her fly forward from the left wing, an area she so often dominated, before slicing a shot across the keeper. This time the US won the final, collecting the first of back-to-back World Cups.

The 2019 World Cup was Rapinoe’s best moment as a player as she peaked under pressure on and off the field. The defending champions were involved in a tense equal pay lawsuit with their own federation, and Rapinoe was caught up in a dispute with Donald Trump, who lashed out on social media after Rapinoe made her feelings on the then US president clear. “Megan should win first before she talks!” one tweet advised. Win she did: she struck six goals on her way to the trophy, finished as joint top-scorer and was named the tournament’s best player.

Those goals came like the others: in the nick of time and delivered with an assurance that seemed inevitable. They also frequently came from set pieces, where Rapinoe so often delivered. Later that year, she won the Ballon d’Or Féminin, awarded to the world’s best player. She also won a gold medal with the US at the 2012 Olympics to go alongside her 203 caps, 63 goals and 73 assists while wearing the US crest.But her impact on the US domestic scene in the National Women’s Soccer League is generational, irreplaceable and directly downwind of her achievements as an international star. Her evolution into a household name ran parallel to the evolution of the NWSL. It helped spur a precarious third attempt at professional women’s soccer in the US from its uncertain start to steady growth.

Across varied metrics including ticket sales, attendance, viewership and investment, the 11th season of NWSL has broken records. When Rapinoe won her first World Cup, in 2015, the league averaged 5,000 fans a game. In 2023 that figure has doubled to more than 10,000. On Thursday, CBS Sports, ESPN, Prime Video and Scripps Sports announced a multiyear deal reported to be worth $240m to broadcast the NWSL across their platforms. Much of that success can be attributed to players such as Rapinoe.

In testament to her direct effect on that growth, Rapinoe’s final home match of the regular season broke the all-time NWSL record, drawing 34,130 supporters into the stands in Seattle.

Now there is one last goal. Rapinoe has helped guide OL Reign to three Supporters Shield trophies, awarded to the team with the best regular season record, but never a championship, which goes to the winner of the playoffs. A redemptive final trophy could ease the painful memories of this summer’s World Cup.

Reign’s opponents on Saturday, Gotham FC, will be a tough hurdle, though. They are also looking for their first NWSL title and will bid farewell to their own retiring star: Ali Krieger, who won her two World Cups alongside Rapinoe.

After a career of eye-catching triumphs, fans can look forward to one more show.

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