For Rapinoe, a Final Send-Off Before a Final World Cup

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Megan Rapinoe began her long goodbye with the equivalent of a homecoming.

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

Rapinoe, 38, grew up in Redding, Calif., about 250 miles north of the site of Sunday’s game, PayPal Park in San Jose. She estimated that about 40 of her family members and friends had made the trip south to see the United States beat Wales, 2-0, in its final game on American soil ahead of the Women’s World Cup that starts later this month in Australia and New Zealand.

“This is the closest that I’ll ever get to play to Redding in my career,” Rapinoe had said on Saturday. “It does feel very special. It feels perfect.”

During the news conference in which she announced her retirement plans on Saturday, Rapinoe had said that she was at peace with the decision to step away from soccer. Now, she was just enjoying the chance to give a proper goodbye to the sport that made her an international star, as well as a spokeswoman 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 has scored 63 goals for the United States and is one of seven players to have accumulated more than 50 goals and 50 assists in her U.S. national team career.

Her role is different these days, having evolved from a lineup fixture to a late-game substitute. She is still valued by her coach, Vlatko Andonovski, though; he included her on his World Cup roster because he values her leadership, experience and ability to shape big moments.

Whenever and however she plays going forward, she remains a crowd favorite. One fan, Corina Burns, who wore a No. 15 T-shirt with the name “Rapinoe” on the back, said she drove from Southern California with her three daughters to attend Sunday’s game. It wasn’t the family’s first trip to see the national team play: They were in France four years ago when Rapinoe was one of the Americans’ most valuable players in their victory at the 2019 World Cup.

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

That World Cup remains, for now, Rapinoe’s crowning achievement. She won both the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as its outstanding player. It is also when she cemented her status as a pop culture icon: She scored six goals in the competition even as she publicly battled with President Donald J. Trump.

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

In her absence, newer faces — Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson — have begun to lay claim to the forward position where Rapinoe was once a clear choice. That new generation, the one that will occupy the space vacated by Rapinoe, was on display again against Wales.

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

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

In that regard, Rapinoe still has much to offer. Andonovski has made no secret of how much he values the wisdom and institutional knowledge she brings to a team that now features players like the 18-year-old Thompson, who is fresh out of high school, and Savannah DeMelo, 25, who received her first cap on Sunday, in addition to the dozen other new faces headed to their first World Cup.

That the U.S. struggled to break down a resolute Wales team that failed to qualify for the World Cup until Rodman scored twice off the bench was perhaps a hopeful indication that Rapinoe might still have an important role to play before she walks away from the team for good.

Her chance never arrived on Sunday: Rapinoe did not warm up and Andonovski never called for her to come on. It was another sign that although Rapinoe said her time is almost up, the times may have already changed.

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