As Megan Rapinoe plans to retire, USWNT teammates lament losing ‘heart of the team’

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The announcement that the upcoming Women’s World Cup will be the last for U.S. women’s national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe was, to a degree, expected. But for U.S. teammate Crystal Dunn, the news still hit hard.

Prior to Saturday’s training session ahead of a friendly against Wales on Sunday, Dunn fought back tears as she described what Rapinoe — who will retire from professional soccer at the conclusion of the NWSL season as well — meant to her.

“I just love her so much,” Dunn said about Rapinoe. “She’s been so key for me in my career. She’s somebody that I can call with the most random stuff.”

Dunn added: “I think ever since when I missed out on the 2015 World Cup and then got back in with the team, I think she was somebody who just welcomed me with so much open arms and she was just like, ‘I’ve been watching your journey and just like, I really appreciate everything that you’ve been through and the work you’ve put in.’ And I think her obviously being who she is and saying that to me is what really sparked our connection.”

Rapinoe’s announcement came at Saturday’s pre-game press conference. The 38-year-old midfielder wanted to make her intentions public now in a bid to avoid any further distractions once the team touches down in New Zealand, where the U.S. will play all three of its group stage games.

“I could have just never imagined where this beautiful game would’ve taken me,” Rapinoe said on Saturday. “I feel so honored to be able to have represented this country and this federation for so many years. It’s truly been the greatest thing that I’ve ever done, something I’m so grateful for.”

Rapinoe and her U.S teammates will be aiming for a third consecutive World Cup victory, with the tournament beginning on July 21. She’ll l have a different role this time around, that of an impact substitute.

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Rapinoe admits she’s happy with substitute role at the World Cup

Megan Rapinoe recalls a conversation she had with USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski about her role at the World Cup.

Regardless of how she finishes, Rapinoe will go down as one of the all-time great U.S. players. If she plays Sunday, she will have made 200 international appearances for the USWNT to go with (at least) two World Cup titles. She also has a FIFA Best Female Player and a Ballon d’Or Féminin award to her name. She also won an Olympic gold medal in 2012.

In the locker room, her mentorship of younger players has also been a key component of the U.S. team’s sustained excellence.

“She obviously has a big presence, very energetic, and she’s the heart of the team,” said U.S. defender Naomi Girma. “And I think she does a great job of making younger players feel welcome and just bringing us into the jokes, to the music, to everything. She was very helpful for me coming in.”

But it’s Rapinoe’s impact away from the field that has perhaps resonated the most. As an openly gay player, the Redding, California native has been an inspiration to the LGBTQIA+ community, making the game more accessible as she fought for diversity. She was also at the forefront of the equal pay fight that led to the USWNT players making immense gains in terms of compensation from the U.S. Soccer Federation. The impact of those contributions should stretch into multiple future generations of players.

Rapinoe’s stances weren’t always popular, like when she knelt for the national anthem, in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was speaking out against racial inequalities. But she remained steadfast in her beliefs.

“Pinoe has always just been a huge advocate for this team,” said U.S. forward Alex Morgan. “She’s been a backbone of this team. And so whether it’s going through the equal pay fight, going through standing up for marginalized communities and backgrounds, she’s someone who is going to stand up for that when it’s not always a popular opinion. And she’s stuck to that, and I respect her so much because she hasn’t had an easy time on the national team, especially in the last five years. And she’s come out stronger for it.”

The 2019 World Cup epitomized the degree to which Rapinoe divided opinion, and still excelled. Her Twitter feud instigated then-president Donald Trump had some Americans actively rooting against her and the team. But her performances and goals, including the game-winner in the final against the Netherlands, spoke volumes to how she wouldn’t be intimidated. Her ability to cope with the intense media spotlight eased the pressure on a side already trying to become the second women’s team to win back-to-back World Cups.

Now the U.S team is determined to send Rapinoe off in style.

“One thing I did tell her at the beginning of this year is, ‘I have no idea if this is your last one, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to get myself into a place where I can help this team win’ and obviously send her off the way that she deserves, which is the queen that she is,” said Dunn. “So that’s what I’m going to try to hope to do.”

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