Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #3: Megan Rapinoe

Brandon Kelley
Host

To be a women’s soccer player in the United States is to follow in the footsteps of giants. The country birthed the winners of the first ever Women’s World Cup, the winners of the most Women’s World Cups all-time and some of the greatest players the women’s game has ever seen. Standing out in that company isn’t just difficult; it’s nearly impossible.

To be a women’s soccer player in the United States is also one of the most visible positions an athlete can take. You are asked to be the best in the world at your job, while at the same time being told that your work is not as valuable as that of the men doing the same job as you, but worse. You are constantly both an athlete and a political figure, both an entertainer and an activist. Not many people can stand up to that kind of pressure.

Now picture all of those forces converging on one player, multiply it by the ire of the most powerful person in the world, and ask yourself the following question: would you withstand the pressure?

That’s exactly what happened to Megan Rapinoe on June 28th, 2019, on a hot night in Paris, France. And she did not crumble.

That’s a good run here by Tobin Heath, possibilities her for the USA, should be two-nil...and it is! ...what a world cup for Meghan Rapinoe...she sweeps the ball past a helpless Sarah Bouhadi, France nil, USA...

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.

It might be difficult, now, to imagine a world where Megan Rapinoe was not the biggest and brightest star in the United States Women’s National Team. But that was more or less the case for Rapinoe’s entire career. Since debuting with the senior national team in 2006 at 21 years old, Megan Rapinoe has almost always been a constant bright spot for the United States, just not the star, most of the time. At the 2011 World Cup, she was vital to United States success, most notably providing the assist to Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute that sent the U.S. to a penalty shoot-out against Brazil with a semi-final spot on the line.

USA have it...and you just got to get everybody forward now, no sense defending anymore...Lloyd’s gotta get this pass off, to Rapinoe...and everybody’s gotta bond forward now...Rapinoe gets a cross in, towards Wombach...Oh! Can you believe it Abby Wambach has saved the USA’s life in this World Cup!...I can’t believe it, and what a ball that was by Meghan Rapinoe.

Rapinoe buried her penalty, and helped the U.S. to a second-place finish. It was Wambach, however, who was the undisputed star of the team, and the one who made the most headlines as the premier goal-scorer. Rapinoe grabbed more of the spotlight at the 2012 Olympics, where she won a gold medal with the team, and helped the US muscle their way through a contentious and physical semi-final match against Canada. Rapinoe scored twice to tie the game after Canada took multiple leads. Rapinoe only managed to share the spotlight, however, as the Games were again dominated by Wambach’s presence, Carli Lloyd in the midfield, and served as an arrival statement for Alex Morgan. And in 2015, Rapinoe was part of the USA team that won the World Cup in Canada, the first World Cup victory for the US since 1999. She scored the first US goal of the tournament against Australia. Nearly everyone on that team, however, was overshadowed by Carli Lloyd’s presence, with her six tournament goals and the 15-minute hat trick in the final against Japan, punctuated by a lob from half-field over the goalkeeper’s head and in.  

Lloyd with Morgan streaking, she’s through the goalkeeper, over the post and in! Hat trick for Lloyd!  

The US won that final against Japan, the team that had beaten them in the World Cup final four years prior. Megan Rapinoe has been one of the most important players on the United States Women’s team throughout her career. She also has the CV to match any player out there: Olympic goal medalist, World Cup champion, as well as various titles and trophies won at the club level with French side Lyon and the Seattle Reign in the NWSL. But rarely was she the center of attention in the United States Women’s National Team player pool. That is, until the 2019 World Cup cycle rolled around.

One thing you should know about Megan Rapinoe: as loud and direct as her attacking play is on the field, she’s equally loud and direct off the field. That wasn’t exactly new information to anyone who followed the team. It’s just that, after 2015, people really began to notice it.

In 2016, Megan Rapinoe made waves when she began to kneel for the national anthem, both with her club team and while representing the national team, in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and the targeting and murdering of black people in America. She even wrote an article for The Player’s Tribune fully laying out her reasons for doing so.

“I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street,” Rapinoe wrote. “But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache.”

The United States Soccer Federation were so flustered by Rapinoe’s protest that they actually created a rule mandating all players to stand for the anthem. The rule targeting Rapinoe wasn’t incredibly popular then, and it’s only looked worse and worse lately. But the thing that really got everyone talking about Megan Rapinoe happened in 2019, during the run-up to the World Cup. She was asked about the USA’s chances and whether or not they would go to the White House if invited by Donald Trump, a person Rapinoe had very vocally opposed. And that’s when she said it.

Are you excited about going to the White House?...I’m not going to the fucking White House. No, I’m not going to the White House. We’re not going to be invited?...You’re not going to be invited?...I doubt it

It caused an uproar, to say the least. People were furious with Rapinoe, with her comments, and just about everything she stood for. They called for boycotting the U.S. women’s team.  

The girls, are play—-these ladies are playing for our country, they wear USA on their uniform everyday, and they’re representing all of us, no matter who’s in office, even if you disagree with them, shouldn’t you support your country?

On the other side of public opinion, many USWNT fans loved Rapinoe even more for taking such vocal stances on what she believed to be right. And so, with all eyes finally on Rapinoe, the USWNT entered the World Cup to defend their title.  

Rapinoe delivered. She scored against Thailand. She scored both goals in a knockout game against Spain. But it was for the hosts, France, in Paris, that Rapinoe saved her opus. Before the game, Donald Trump responded to Rapinoe, telling her she should never disrespect the flag, and that saying she should win the tournament before she does any talking about visiting the White House. And that was easier said than done. Before the tournament had started, France were co-favorites to lift the World Cup trophy, and had the home-field advantage, playing in their capital, no less.

After only 5 minutes, Rapinoe found the back of the net. And to celebrate, she ran to the sideline, puffing her chest out and raising her arms like a victorious gladiator in the middle of the Colosseum. The eyes of the world were watching her. And she answered by inviting them to keep looking.  

Rapinoe ready...to fire this in presumably with bass...all the way in!...a dream start for the United States!

Fans instantly dubbed the celebration “The Rapinoe,” and she repeated it in the second half, when she scored yet again to seal the victory for the USA. The US went on to win the tournament, and Megan Rapinoe won the golden boot for the top scorer of the tournament, the golden ball for best player of the tournament, and became the oldest women’s player to ever score in a World Cup final at the age of 34.  

There are many stars who have scored goals, won tournaments, and become the best player in the World. Few of them did so well into their 30s, having never managed the feat in what might be considered their athletic prime. And even fewer have done so with so much attention fixated solely on them, drawing the ire of one of the most powerful figures in the world. How did Megan Rapinoe finally become the biggest star in the USWNT universe? She spoke loudly, brought the play to match it, and struck a pose, statuesque, one night in Paris. The word “iconic” has rarely been more apt.