CHICAGO — There are some goodbyes that are heavy and sad, the weight of the emotions almost too much to bear. Then there are the goodbyes that are joyous, a celebration of what’s been rather than regret over what’s about to be lost.
Megan Rapinoe’s final game with the U.S. women Sunday was very much the latter. Any tears were far outweighed by the laughter, the jokes and, most of all, the love.
"There's so many feelings. I think what shines through is my pride and my gratitude," Rapinoe said after the game. "I'm just feeling really grateful to be able to have a final game and to be able to have that kind of closure. ... The federation did such an amazing job to make me feel very, very loved and appreciated this week. So feeling very grateful."
It was a near-perfect closing of the circle on Rapinoe's career, too, and not only because her father was born here and she was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars.
Trinity Rodman, one of “the kids” Rapinoe name-checked Saturday as giving her peace that the USWNT will be just fine, scored the first goal, in the 18th minute. Emily Sonnett, Rapinoe's teammate in Seattle, doubled the score off a Rapinoe corner kick in the 49th minute, allowing Rapinoe to give her signature “Are you not entertained?” pose one last time.
"It just brought so much joy," Rapinoe said. "If I couldn't get one, having Trin get one was really special."
When Rapinoe left the field in the 54th minute, there was a heartfelt embrace with every one of her teammates, some of whom she’s played with for years, others for just a few months. She and Midge Purce, who took her place on the field, exchanged slight bows and a handshake on the sideline and then, just like that, it was over.
There will never be another ‘Pinoe but my God what a gift she’s been. To the U.S. women, to soccer, to society overall. She’s a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, and she won both Golden Ball and Golden Boot honors in 2019. She's been a staunch advocate for racial equality and the LGBTQ community, and was integral in the USWNT's fight for equal pay and the broader fight for respect for women athletes.
A fight that has spread beyond the United States.
A legend’s final bow. pic.twitter.com/eZPaOrJ3rK
— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) September 24, 2023
Rapinoe on Spain
Spain won its first-ever World Cup title despite a protracted battle with its federation over respect and equality. The players have not been able to celebrate their World Cup title after the former federation president groped and kissed Jenni Hermoso without her consent on the medals stand, sparking a broader debate about misogyny in Spanish culture.
"It's really sad, obviously, and frustrating," Rapinoe said. "I would just encourage the Spanish federation — there is no winning for them. There's no winning and digging into the position that they are. You have a really unique opportunity to get behind a first-time world champion and a federation and a program that seems like it's going to be good for a really long time. I would partner with them instead of fighting with them."
A USWNT without Rapinoe
It’s unfathomable to think of the USWNT without Rapinoe. Just as it was once unfathomable to imagine the USWNT without Mia Hamm. And Michelle Akers. And Julie Foudy. And Abby Wambach.
But in sports, just as in life, there’s no such thing as immortality. You do your best in the time you’re given and hope it’s enough to leave an impact, and you enjoy every second of the ride because no two moments are the same.
Rapinoe did that better than most, which is why her sendoff Sunday was so joyous. She gave everything she had to the USWNT, and her imprint will be on it for decades to come.
"She just really radiates love," interim coach Twila Kilgore said. "To see her teammates shower her with love and just how much it meant to her, I think it’s a privilege to be in the room."
You needed look no further than Rodman to see that.
“This team has a crazy amount of potential. And just good kids,” Rapinoe said Saturday. “I think that’s why I have such peace about moving on. I look at players like Sophia Smith, Naomi (Girma), Trin. The squad is in very, very good hands if those are the ones that are holding it moving forward.”
Rodman is just 21 and absurdly talented, but she’s still trying to find her way with the USWNT. She had some flashes of brilliance at the World Cup and some not-very-good games. But on Sunday, she played with the enthusiasm and aggression that has always been a trademark of the USWNT.
Alex Morgan served up a perfect cross, chipping the ball over two defenders from near the endline, and Rodman sent it rocketing into the net with a perfect volley.
The first person to hug her? Rapinoe.
"I'm such a big fan of Trin, off the field and on the field, just to see the way that she's grown," Rapinoe said. "So it felt like a perfect little passing of the torch."
The only thing missing, if you can even say that, from Sunday’s 2-0 win over South Africa was Rapinoe scoring, and she came close. A free kick after Sonnett’s goal rustled the top of the net, drawing laughter and sheepish grins from the Americans.
Seconds later, Rapinoe was making her way off the field in a U.S. jersey for the last time.
"We fought so hard off the field to continue to create more space for ourselves to be who we are, but hopefully in turn to create space for you guys to be who you are," Rapinoe said. "It has been such an honor to be able to wear this shirt and to be able to play with all these amazing players.
"Thank you so much," Rapinoe said as she wrapped up. "I guess that’s it. I love you guys."
This wasn't goodbye to Rapinoe so much as it was thank you. It's been a wonderful ride, for everyone who got to be a part of it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Megan Rapinoe plays final soccer game for USWNT, honored by team