For Rapinoe, a final serve before the World Cup final

Megan Rapinoe kicked off her long farewell with the equivalent of Homecoming.

In the decade and a half since she became a professional soccer player, her career has taken her to soccer clubs on two continents, to the Olympic Games three times, and soon to a fourth World Cup. On Sunday, the day after she surprised her team and fans by publicly announcing plans to retire at the end of this year, Rapinoe found herself settling for a seat on the US women’s national team bench just a few hundred miles from her hometown.

Rapinoe, 38, grew up in Redding, California, about 250 miles north of the site of Sunday’s game, PayPal Park in San Jose. She estimated that about 40 of her family and friends made the trip south to watch the United States beat Wales, 2-0, in their final match on American soil before the Women’s World Cup that begins later this month in Australia and New York. zealand.

“This is the closest I’ve ever come to playing Reading in my career,” Rapinoe said on Saturday. “It feels very special. It feels perfect.”

During the press conference announcing her retirement plans on Saturday, Rapinoe said she was at peace with the decision to step away from soccer. Now, she was just enjoying the chance to say goodbye to the sport that made her an international star, as well as being a spokesperson for equal rights, equal pay and social justice issues close to her heart.

Rapinoe has played for the national team since 2006. A three-time Olympian and two-time World Cup champion, she scored 63 goals for the United States and is one of seven players to total more than 50 goals and 50 assists in her career. The career of the US National Team.

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Her role is different these days, having evolved from the starting lineup into a late-game substitute. However, her coach, Vlatko Andonovsky, is still appreciated; He included her in the World Cup squad because he appreciates her leadership, experience and ability to shape the big moments.

Whenever and however it is played in the future, it remains a crowd favorite. One fan, Corinna Burns, who wore jersey number 15 with the name “Rapino” on the back, said she drove from Southern California with her three daughters to attend Sunday’s game. This wasn’t the family’s first trip to see the national team: They were in France four years ago when Rapinoe was one of the most valuable US players in their 2019 World Cup victory.

“We saw her play and fell in love with her,” Burns said.

That World Cup remains, to date, Rapinoe’s crowning achievement. She won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as her outstanding player. It was also when she cemented her status as a pop-culture icon: She scored six goals in the contest even as she publicly feuded with President Donald J. Trump.

She remains an outspoken voice, but she’s a different player these days. Rapinoe has been plagued with injuries for months, with an ankle injury keeping her out of the start of the NRL Women’s League season and a calf injury keeping her from two national team matches against Ireland in April. Andonovsky said, following Sunday’s game, that Rapinoe has been medically cleared to play in the World Cup, but is still working on improving his fitness.

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In her absence, fresh faces – Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Alyssa Thompson – have begun to claim the forward spot where Rapinoe was once an obvious choice. This new generation, who will occupy the space vacated by Rapinoe, reappeared against Wales.

In the 76th minute on Sunday, Rodman, 21, broke through a scoreless game by scoring easily from a cross from Smith, 22. Rodman struck again in the 88th minute, volleying a 20-yard shot from the hands of Wales goalkeeper Olivia Clarke. . Rodman became the youngest American player to score two goals in an international match since 2019.

“It’s this year’s youth roster, but the mix of experience and youth has been really good to learn from each other,” Rodman said after the game as chants of “USA” echoed around the court. “As much as we can learn from them, they can also learn from us.”

In this regard, Rapinoe still has a lot to offer. Andonovski has made no secret of how much he appreciates the corporate wisdom and knowledge she brings to a team that now includes players like 18-year-old Thompson, fresh out of high school, and Savannah Demillo, 25, who welcomed her first on Sunday, as well as dozens of other fresh faces heading out. to the World Cup for the first time.

The United States’ struggle to break down a resolute Welsh side that failed to qualify for the World Cup until Rodman scored twice off the bench may be an optimistic indication that Rapinoe may still have an important role to play before walking away from the team for good. .

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Her chance never came on Sunday: Rapinoe never warmed up and Andonofsky never invited her to attend. It was another sign that even though Rapinoe said her time was almost up, times might actually have changed.

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