May 20, 2024

Megan Rapinoe entered the postgame news conference in the bowels of Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday wearing a walking boot on her right leg and a pained smile on her face.

The boot was to protect the Achilles tendon she had torn three minutes into the NWSL championship game, the final match of an unparalleled career. The unconvincing smile was meant to protect a fragile spirit that shredded when her Achilles did, robbing her of the storybook ending her novel career deserved.

“I mean, I don’t deserve this, I’ll tell you that much,” she said, a chuckle masking the pain. “I’m not a religious person or anything but if there is a God, this is proof that there isn’t.”

Rapinoe has won just about everything there is to win in soccer. Two World Cups. An Olympic gold medal. The Golden Ball and Golden Boot in the World Cup in 2019, the year she won the Ballon d’Or and was chosen the FIFA women’s player of the year. Yet she had never won an NWSL title, something she had a chance to do with the OL Reign on Saturday against NJ/NY Gotham FC.

Instead, her night ended early. In the third minute, she made a feint toward Gotham defender Jenna Nighswonger, then spun quickly the turf. Rapinoe looked behind her to see who had kicked her but there was no one there. She had torn her Achilles, she appeared to say to a teammate.

As several players surrounded her, Rapinoe pulled the top of her jersey over her face in an effort to hide the pain and emotion. A stretcher was brought onto the field, but she waved it off, struggling to her feet and hobbling off the field as the crowd of 25,011, which had fallen silent, rose in applause.

“I really didn’t want to be carried off,” she said.

The game soon resumed, with MVP Midge Purce assisting on both goals in Gotham’s 2-1 win over Rapinoe’s Reign. Lynn Williams, playing in her fifth title game, scored the first Gotham goal to win her fourth crown, matching teammate McCall Zerboni for the most in NWSL history.

For Gotham captain Ali Krieger, who was also playing in her last game, the championship was her first, giving her the Hollywood ending denied to Rapinoe.

“I don’t think I could dream of a better ending for myself,” said Krieger, Rapinoe’s teammate on the two World Cup winners. “I just want to enjoy this with my family, my friends and my kids, most importantly. And my teammates, some of my best friends. We’ve really built some deep relationships over the course of this year that I’m going to take with me forever.”

Krieger, 39, and Rapinoe, 38, announced last spring their careers would end when the NWSL season did, then both worked to delay that as long as possible, helping their teams clinch playoff berths on the final day of the regular season. Not that either one doubted that would happen. In September, with Gotham hovering on the edge of a postseason berth, Rapinoe texted Krieger to ask when Gotham’s last game would be played.

“Nov. 11,” Krieger immediately shot back, the day of the NWSL championship game.

“Hahhaahahahahah,” Rapinoe answered in an exchange heavy in emojis but short in punctuation. “Youre funny. Well, I guess that’s my last game too.”

What neither said at the time was that Rapinoe played a part in helping Krieger get there. When Krieger’s much-celebrated marriage to former teammate Ashlyn Harris began collapsing during the summer, leading to a September divorce, she turned to Rapinoe for advice and support.

“She has been rock solid for me as a best friend,” Krieger said. “My personal life has been very difficult since about June and she’s been there supporting me through that. She’ll always be in my corner. We’re always going to be there for each other.”

Which is why Krieger was at Rapinoe’s side Saturday, wrapping her in a warm embrace after she climbed to her feet.

“I was devastated,” Krieger said. “I will definitely be by her side through this recovery, because I know how difficult it’s going to be.”

For Rapinoe, it was the second time in four months that disaster crashed what should have been a celebratory retirement party. In August, in her final competitive game with the national team, she missed her penalty kick in a tiebreaking shootout with Sweden, contributing to the earliest World Cup exit in U.S. history.

Rapinoe, who doesn’t like to show when she has been wounded, tried to hide behind a smile then, too, but the tears in her eyes were testament to how much it hurt.

“I thought about that a little bit,” Rapinoe said Saturday. “This one feels different. It’s like, that’s life. It’s part of the game. You don’t always get to have the perfect ending.”

Sometimes you do, because in the Gotham locker room Krieger was hugging the NWSL trophy for the first time after her last game.

“I just want to ride off into the sunset and enjoy this,” she said.

In the other locker room Rapinoe smiled, if only to mask the pain.

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