Megan Rapinoe, conquering hero, returns to cheers but not to action

Rapinoe is still recovering from a leg injury sustained during the Women's World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long celebrated their 2019 World Cup victory for the United Sates Women's National Soccer Team prior to taking on the Chicago Red Stars.
Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long celebrated their World Cup victory for the United Sates Women's National Soccer Team. –(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

TACOMA, Wash. — It was Megan Rapinoe’s first time on a soccer field with a group of her teammates in three weeks, since she led the United States to the Women’s World Cup victory in France.

What a difference a month makes.

Instead of a crowd of nearly 60,000 at the Stade de Lyon, the venue Sunday was modest and low-slung, a minor-league baseball stadium with a rough capacity of 7,000.

Instead of plying her trade for a United States women’s team basking in the glow of mainstream cool, Rapinoe’s squad Sunday was Reign FC, a midtable squad in the 7-year old National Women’s Soccer League.

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And instead of taking to the pitch and dominating, this time Rapinoe, now arguably one of the biggest stars in soccer, did not play a minute.

This was not a surprise; Rapinoe had announced at a news conference last week that she would not take part in her homecoming game, both because she was still nursing leg injuries that had slowed her at the World Cup but also because, in her words, “I’m exhausted.” Instead she offered a brief appearance: a cameo of a celebration, heartfelt but far smaller than the ones she took part in both in France and later after a ticker-tape parade in New York.

Fifteen minutes before the game, Rapinoe walked onto the field wearing jeans, a white collared shirt and Nike running shoes instead of the Reign’s black and white uniform. She was flanked by eight other members of the Reign who had taken part in the World Cup, for nations including England, Canada and New Zealand. She walked wrapped in an American flag next to midfielder Allie Long, her teammate on the U.S. team.

As part of a the ceremony, Rapinoe received a key to the city of Tacoma, which the Reign now calls home after moving before the start of this season from Seattle, 33 miles to the north.

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“Guess what, Tacoma, she plays here!” Tacoma’s mayor, Victoria Woodard, bellowed into a microphone. Basking in a thunderous ovation, Rapinoe flashed her wide smile and the arms-spread-wide pose that became her trademark after each of her six World Cup goals.

And that was it.

There was a game to be played at Cheney Stadium, which serves mainly as the home of the Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers. For the Reign, the pregame interlude would be the afternoon’s only highlight: the visiting Chicago Red Stars, powered by their own World Cup stars like Sam Kerr and Julie Ertz, scored early and never let up, winning by 4-0.

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After a World Cup in which Rapinoe stared down the ire of President Donald Trump on her way to being named the tournament’s best player and top scorer, her decision not to play gave this game a hollow feel, like turning up to see a Broadway show only to learn the much-talked-about headliner was out sick.

And yet, on this bright afternoon, the fans on hand were more than willing to give Rapinoe a pass. In fact, with women’s soccer still backing in the World Cup glow, they showed up as never before. The stands were lined with Rapinoe’s No. 15 national team and Reign jerseys. The announced crowd of roughly 7,500 was a team record, another in a string of solid post-World Cup crowds that have been a positive sign for an NWSL still struggling to gain a foothold and fill seats in all but a few of its nine cities.

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“It will be more than fine just to see her on the sidelines,” said Jacinta Clay, a 22-year-old from a suburb just south of Seattle. “Everyone here knows she won’t be playing, but hey, that’s understandable because she has spent the last two months campaigning for women’s rights while playing soccer and winning the World Cup. Plus, she’s spent the last two months telling Donald Trump what she thinks he is. Now she’s a little tired. Perfectly valid.”

Rapinoe had warned everyone she would be taking the day off during last week’s news conference. The difficult push to the World Cup title, she said, followed by all the attendant exposure — the parade in New York, the national television interviews and talk-show appearances, the constant questions about politics and the drive for equal pay — had taken a toll.

“I feel terrible, just exhausted,” Rapinoe told reporters.

She needed time off and time to heal, she said. She hopes to be ready to play when the national team opens its victory tour with a game against Ireland on Saturday in Los Angeles. If not, she hopes to make her return in the Reign’s next home game, against their Northwest rival, the Portland Thorns, on Aug. 7.

While Sunday’s game was a dud for Reign fans, that hardly dimmed the mood. Shortly after the last seconds ticked off the clock, fans formed a thick line that bent around the field and stretched nearly 150 yards long, waiting eagerly for Rapinoe.

“Megan, we love you!” chanted a group of women. “Megan! Megan!”

“Megan, you’re my hero!” a man yelled.

Shawnda Grady and her husband, Andre Espinosa, stood in line, patiently keeping track of their three young daughters, ages 5, 7 and 9. They had flown from their home in Sacramento, California, to attend the game. It was worth it, they said, just to get a glimpse of Rapinoe.

“This game was a celebration, even without her playing,” Grady said. “She just means so much. It’s just such a cool opportunity for our girls. An opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”

Added Espinosa: “This was like seeing a conquering general. We don’t need to see her in war. We just want to see her celebrate the victory. That’s enough.”