Sitting on the bench as her United States team played at the Women’s World Cup last week, Megan Rapinoe was sure that she was in the wrong spot. She was just as sure that her coach, Vlatko Andonovski, should see that, and fix it.
“I’m always shocked when I don’t play,” Rapinoe said with a laugh, joking with reporters on Sunday about her uneasy new role: reserve. “Every player who starts thinks they should play,” she added. “And everyone on the bench thinks they should be on the field.”
What else was Rapinoe supposed to think, having come to this World Cup as a marquee player who had been a game changer in its last three editions? For the first time in 12 years, Rapinoe, the outspoken and accomplished leader of the U.S. team for the past decade, is watching the World Cup instead of starring in it. In the first U.S. game at this tournament, a 3-0 victory over Vietnam that was her 200th appearance for the United States, Rapinoe came into the game as a substitute for the final half-hour. In the second game, she did not play at all, even as her team struggled to create space and scoring chances in a 1-1 tie with the Netherlands.
Rapinoe, 38, expected this World Cup to be a sort of changing of the guard, of course. She is the oldest player on the team, and on the eve of her team’s departure for New Zealand she announced that this would be her final World Cup and her final professional season.
She will never be happy about sitting out, she said. But she also knows she has a role to play.
“Ultimately, we’re at the World Cup — this is where everybody wants to be, whether you’re playing 90 minutes or whether you’re a game-changer or whatever,” she said. “I think it’s a lot similar to what I thought it would be, bringing all the experience that I can, all the experience that I have, and ultimately being ready whenever my number is called up.”
She is, she said, embracing her new role. Maybe the United States needs a player — a player like her, was the clear implication — who gives “20 minutes in two games that wins the team the tournament, or wins a team a game that gets it to the next round.”
The United expects to have a long road yet at this World Cup, and no one — including Rapinoe — wants it to be a weekslong eulogy to her career. But Rapinoe’s teammates are already mourning her departure, no matter how many minutes she plays here. When Kelley O’Hara, the defender who has played with Rapinoe at the past three World Cups, was asked days before the tournament started to consider what it will be like when Rapinoe is gone, she broke into tears.
“She’s done such incredible things for this team and for the world, so to be able to see the up close and personal Pinoe, and be close to that has been really special,” O’Hara said. “I hope that we all send her out on a high.”
Alex Morgan called Rapinoe a special player, one the team can still count on. “She makes things happen out of nothing,” Morgan said. “We’ve seen that time and time again.”
It is unclear if Rapinoe will have many more chances to make something out of nothing at the World Cup. Andonovski has committed to his new lineup, so much so that he declined to make changes even as it struggled to find a goal against the Netherlands. But Rapinoe made it clear that, from her seat, the United States missed out on controlling its fate against the Netherlands.
The team could have set itself up to claim first place in its group if it had beaten the Dutch, most likely locking in an easier path in the knockout rounds. It still controls its destiny — a win, especially a big one, over Portugal on Tuesday would achieve the same result. But Rapinoe knows as well as anyone that World Cups are won or lost by the finest of margins. On the biggest stages, she said, the smallest details can matter, and so she will keep working, keep pushing to play.
Rapinoe and the rest of the U.S. reserves who didn’t play against the Netherlands had time to consider their fate as they gathered at training the day after the match. The starters were back at the hotel, resting, as is usual after a game. For Rapinoe, the substitute, there was training. It was a hard lesson, she acknowledged, but also an opportunity.
“You cry in your shower or you cry with your friends in the sauna,” she said. But after that, you have no choice but to make the best of it.
Rapinoe reminded everyone on Sunday that she is not any less of a competitor than she was in her first World Cup, in 2011, the tournament in which, she said, she “announced herself.” In the quarterfinals that year against Brazil, it was Rapinoe who delivered a last-second ball from midfield to Abby Wambach, who scored the header that saved the Americans from a humbling early elimination. The U.S. went on to reach the final.
Pressure-filled moments like that remind Rapinoe of where the United States stands in this World Cup. And while she might not be the go-to player anymore, she still has a lot to offer, she said. Watching from the sideline on Thursday, she said, she spotted “some really simple fixes” that she was more than happy to share with her teammates and her coaches.
On Sunday, Rapinoe was quick to emphasize that just because she is OK with her role as a sage and helpful veteran, that doesn’t mean she is going any easier on the younger players during practices.
Every day in training, she said, her job is to try to take one of theirs. “And that makes them better,” she said. “That makes me better. That makes the whole team better.”