The illustrious careers of Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger will each end on the same field on Saturday, at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, California, the site of the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League championship. The match-up between Rapinoe’s OL Reign and Krieger’s NJ/NY Gotham FC could be the league’s most high-profile game yet, with a championship-record crowd possible and a large global audience expected to tune in for the primetime matchup.
The stage set in San Diego is a far cry from the forgotten early days of each player’s club career. Rapinoe and Krieger are each two-time World Cup champions. Each has an Olympic gold medal to her name. Each player, too, has already said their goodbyes to the United States women’s national team. On Saturday, the two longtime friends get an encore performance for their clubs, one last chance for each to win a rare trophy that has eluded them.
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While both players are best known globally for their accomplishments with the U.S. national team, they refined their skills daily in their club environments. They come from an era when much of that work was done in the shadows, playing games on high school football fields (or, infamously, poorly converted baseball fields) at times when some teams in the NWSL could barely attract 1,000 fans on a hot summer night.
As OL Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle said after her team’s semifinal victory on Sunday, “It seems a bit poetic that the championship game is ending with Krieger and Pinoe’s last game.” Perhaps it was even prophetic. Krieger recently shared a September text-message exchange between the two playfully jabbing at each other about making it to the NWSL Championship. The messages are a window into their friendship and their personalities. Both players exude joy on and off the pitch. On Saturday, one will end her career on top of a league she helped build. (No matter the result, expect these two to make each other laugh afterward, as they always have.)
Nobody could have predicted Rapinoe and Krieger would have the opportunity to end their careers in this kind of setting a decade ago, when the NWSL launched in a sea of uncertainty after two prior leagues failed. It is fitting, however, that two stars who have garnered international accolades bow out in the club setting, which shaped their careers away from the spotlight.
Krieger graduated from Penn State University during the dark ages for women’s soccer in the U.S., when there was no professional league from late 2003 until early 2009. She signed for FFC Frankfurt, a German and European heavyweight at the time, in 2007 and helped the team win a third European title in her first season there. Krieger and teammate Gina Lewandowski became the first two American women to win a European title.
In Germany, Krieger became arguably the best fullback in the world, a claim she cemented at the 2011 World Cup, where she started all six matches in the United States’ run to the final. She had another brief stint in Europe, playing for Swedish side Tyresö FF for part of the team’s run to a European final, but the NWSL — and her hometown team, the Washington Spirit — beckoned. Krieger joined the Spirit from the team’s launch in 2013.
“I was here right when the league started,” Krieger recently told ESPN. “I came home from Germany just to [help] create this league and give it a space where it can thrive, [to] give these players a space to get better every day and have this opportunity to play in their hometowns, or in front of their friends and family. It’s something that we’d always dreamed of having — [something] that’s stable and consistent. Winning that after all this time would mean everything to me. That’s the pinnacle of playing in the NWSL, is winning that championship.”
Rapinoe found herself in a similar juggle between Europe and the U.S. at the outset of the NWSL. She had tasted professional soccer in the U.S. already with the Chicago Red Stars and, infamously, the 2011 circus known as magicJack, before signing with European powerhouse Lyon for around $14,000 per month according to reports — a salary largely unheard of for women’s players at the time.
U.S. Soccer and the NWSL allocated Rapinoe to the Reign — Seattle Reign FC at the time — at the start of the NWSL. It was there, in Seattle, where the Megan Rapinoe that the world knows today came to fruition, and where the legacies of club and player became intertwined.
“I feel like I owe so much of my national team career to the Reign,” Rapinoe told ESPN last year. “I’ve had two of the best, if not the best coaches in the world, coach here and to be able to play under them. Some of the best players in the world [were here]. … I feel like it’s where my game grew up. I think up until I got here it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m talented, I’m on the national team, we’re doing stuff, we’re successful.’ But I feel like when I got here, my game changed completely, and I really took it to the next level. I just owe so much to this club.”
Seattle was horrendous in its first NWSL season. After an opening-day draw against the Chicago Red Stars, the Reign lost nine straight games. They were 0-9-1 when Rapinoe made her club debut on June 23, 2013. Her impact was instant.
The Reign went on a six-game unbeaten run that coincided with Rapinoe’s arrival, and the star winger finished the season as the team’s leading scorer. A foundation was laid for 2014, when the Reign — anchored by Hope Solo in goal and Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, and Kim Little generating the attack — went on a 16-game unbeaten streak and won the NWSL Shield.
Rapinoe has been integral to the Reign’s success through the years, from those two Shields — and corresponding NWSL Championship losses — in 2014 and 2015, when she was at her peak, to a late-season run of form to capture a third NWSL Shield in 2022 and get the team back to the final this year. At 38, Rapinoe still knows how to make the most of her game-changing talents, even if those moments come less frequently now.
The NWSL championship matchup being Megan Rapinoe’s and Ali Krieger’s final game ever feels like ✨fate✨ pic.twitter.com/hmhdpWb4wU
— espnW (@espnW) November 8, 2023
Rapinoe’s entire NWSL career — the entire past decade of her professional career — has been with the Reign. She has embraced Seattle as her home despite playing college soccer in Portland: home of the Reign’s biggest rivals, the Thorns. Never one to tread lightly, Rapinoe poked the bear and stoked the rivalry with Portland through the years whenever she could (with her signature, charismatic smile, of course).
To win a title for the Reign — for Seattle, her adopted home alongside partner and WNBA legend Sue Bird — would mean everything to her.
“I’ve been really open: It’s a huge hole, I feel like, in my career and what means most to me throughout my entire career,” Rapinoe said ahead of this year’s playoffs. “Obviously, we’ve had great teams here — some of the best ever teams here with the Reign and haven’t been able to get that one, elusive piece of silverware. So, that would mean the world to me. I would absolutely love that. I’ll put every single thing into it to try to get that as we do every year. That would, of course, be a perfect scripted ending.”
For a decade, Rapinoe was hiding in plain sight with Reign and in the NWSL. She gained international recognition through her play with the U.S. The was the 2011 World Cup where she belted out “Born in the USA,” in a field microphone after scoring, and the quarterfinal cross to Abby Wambach that “saved the USA’s life” against Brazil, as Ian Darke said on the call on ESPN. A year later, Rapinoe scored an Olimpico in the Olympic semifinal victory over Canada. In 2019, she gained a new level of global celebrity by owning the sports moment — a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot and Ballon d’Or — and also igniting a polarized political landscape by publicly sparring with President Donald Trump.
This was the Rapinoe that faithful NWSL fans already knew. Her decision to kneel during the national anthem to bring attention to societal injustices gained increased attention with (and nearly cost her a place on) the national team, but it started in the NWSL. She was denied the opportunity to kneel in a September 2016 road game against the Spirit when then-Spirit owner Bill Lynch played the national anthem while the teams were still in the locker rooms. Rapinoe called the actions ‘f—ing unbelievable.’
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Spirit players quickly released a statement saying that they were disappointed by their owner’s decision. Their captain? Krieger, of course. Two months later, Krieger was traded to the Orlando Pride. Washington had just made a run to the NWSL Championship, losing in a penalty shootout that saw Krieger’s opening kick saved. It is a loss that still burns in Krieger’s memory.
Rapinoe remembers losses in the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Championships. She nearly dragged the Reign back from a late 2-0 deficit in 2014 by scoring late, but the woodwork denied Seattle on multiple occasions in the first of back-to-back final losses to FC Kansas City.
Both players were at or near their peaks in those years, but they have both managed to find ways to stay sharp until the end. Just as she did last year, Rapinoe came alive in the second half of the NWSL season, including a pair of vintage goals on the final day of the season to secure the Reign a playoff berth. Krieger was exceptional throughout 2023. She credited her teammates and her coaching staff with making the game exciting again.
Saturday marks the end. The end of two illustrious careers. The end of an era for two pioneers of a league that went from an unstable experiment to a booming investment property. And, one way or another, the end of a quest for a trophy they previously failed to touch.
“It would be amazing to win an NWSL Championship,” Krieger said. “It’s something that’s been lingering over my head for a while, ever since 2016, when I was in the final with D.C. It’s not going to make or break my career, right? I can look back at my career now and I could be overjoyed and just so proud of myself. So, it’s not going to define that, but it will put a cherry on top. I think that winning in the U.S. and your American league as an American player is truly remarkable. And I think that just would just be a dream come true.”