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Inside the Reign’s historic goodbye to Megan Rapinoe

An NWSL record crowd turned up in Seattle to say goodbye to Megan Rapinoe

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Reporting live from Lumen Field in Seattle.

As the seconds ticked down to the final whistle, more than 34,000 fans rose to their feet in Lumen Field. Synchronized claps and bated breaths filled the stadium as Megan Rapinoe stepped up to take one final free kick. Looking into the crowd, one could see jerseys from every era of Rapinoe’s career, pink wigs galore, and signs expressing immense love for the veteran.

The stadium felt ready to erupt. More than anything, there was a clear belief in the air that everyone was about to witness something amazing. One of those moments of on-field magical brilliance Rapinoe has produced so often throughout her career.

It didn’t come. Rather than swerving in a deadly service or going straight for a long-distance shot, Rapinoe made the smart move of simply setting up her teammate in space to serve the cross in from a better angle. The resulting cross was easily cleared and as Rapinoe ran to try and take the quick throw-in the whistle blew and the game ended a scoreless tie.

Moments like these happened throughout the game, when Rapinoe won the ball defensively and started a counter or was found in space and drove towards the net. And each time, the roar of the crowd would grow louder and louder in anticipation, willing the home team to find a breakthrough, hopefully involving the woman of the night.

Though that magic moment never came and there was no storybook sendoff for the legend that the record crowd hoped for, the true magic was in the presence of the crowd itself. A crowd filled with people who were inspired by Rapinoe in one way or another and believed in her the way she made them believe in themselves.

Oct 6, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; The Mastercard kids escort the players from Washington Spirit and OL Reign before the game at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

It is this inspiration across generations that Rapinoe believes is the most amazing and important legacy of her career.

“That’s really that’s what matters. Of course, we love playing and we want to make the league better in every way that we possibly can, but it’s a game at the end of the day, and it’s something that we get to use to do what I feel like the point of life is: to use what you have to better yourself and make people better around you, and to leave things in a better place than where you found them,” Rapinoe said post-game.

Rapinoe continued with praise for the players who took on the heavy mantel of improving the NWSL and “the beautiful perseverance that we have to drag ourselves and this league to so much higher ground and such a beautiful place that we feel like now this league really has an opportunity to grow and to thrive and to reach it’s potential.”

Fighting back tears, Rapinoe continued, “for players to be able to do that themselves and in turn, continue to inspire the next generation, inspire people… seeing the fans tonight and just seeing the different signs, or the pride flags, or people just getting to be themselves through this game, just as I’ve… lived out so many things through this vehicle… So to be able to see that around and see how much things have changed, I think that’s a big part of the peace that I have walking away from the game, is how beautiful that has been.”

Known for always being a voice for others and always knowing what to say when she is so often asked to, for once when it was entirely about her, Rapinoe was almost rendered speechless. As she stood in front of hundreds of loved ones and 34,130 fans, Megan Rapinoe could not find the words to encapsulate the magnitude and emotions of the moment.

Oct 6, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe (15) speaks to the fans after the game against Washington Spirit at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Standing on a small temporary platform with the other three Reign OGs – Jess Fishlock, Lauren Barnes – and head coach Laura Harvey, Rapinoe said to the stadium full of fans, almost all of whom stuck around after the game to hear her speak, “this is crazy and I honestly don’t really know what to say.”

For a player who loves the big moments and big crowds, Rapinoe admitted the amount of attention made her somewhat uncomfortable and it was unusually “shyness inducing.” Perhaps that wasn’t helped by Harvey leading tens of thousands of people in chants of “Oh Megan Rapinoe,” but she seemed to enjoy that, in typical playful Rapinoe fashion as well. More than anything, it seemed she had so many things she wanted to say but couldn’t possibly fit it all in the time.

Rapinoe did confirm to media before the game that her speech would not be very long because she, only somewhat jokingly, “had places to be,” but she expanded after the game.

“It is hard to put into words. Spending so much of my life here, and such an important part of my life here, and just this one club, with these people… to see the way that the city showed up and to express that gratitude or love towards me is really special. It’s really overwhelming,” Rapinoe said. “I do know my impact, but it’s one thing to know it and then another thing to really feel it and see it and see some of the signs and see pink wigs and just see what that means to people. So yeah, it’s hard to put this kind of deep sense of gratitude and joy and thankfulness for being able to have a moment like this into words.”

She told media post-game that she didn’t know how she could possibly thank everyone who deserved it. Surrounded by family, friends, former teammates, current teammates, and a multitude of other loved ones it was “either talk for like five minutes, or 105 minutes, so I tried to keep it at five today.”

While a small number of fans may have been happy to not be held long after the game, a majority likely hoped for a longer speech from Rapinoe and even more time to show her their gratitude.

How do you say thank you to someone who has meant so much to the world, only partially because of what she did on the soccer pitch, but mostly because of the way she changed peoples’ lives off the pitch? Realistically, it is impossible.

Rapinoe herself acknowledged she didn’t even know everything that was going on around the celebration, and couldn’t read every sign or post – the volume was so immense. But she felt the love. Like when each and every time Rapinoe stepped to a corner flag to serve in one of her classic set-pieces, the west side of the stadium became a rainbow in her honor.

League record crowd, deserved and overdue

It is only fitting that a night about Rapinoe was also about so much more. Not only were the game’s playoff implications massive, but the crowd that showed up is also something Rapinoe and the OGs have been fighting for for a decade.

In looking to celebrate an all-time legend of the game, the Reign evidently put a large portion of their budget into a huge marketing push. They worked hard to get enough people to show up to set a new all-time attendance record, not just the club but for the entire league. And they were successful. Not only did the Reign break the previous NWSL attendance record of 32,000, but they beat it by a couple of thousand.

Rapinoe explicitly thanked fans after the game for showing up, saying, “this is what we’ve wanted for so long.” She acknowledged the game’s “incredible atmosphere” and expressed that she hopes to see all these fans at all the home games next year. Harvey’s short speech also ended with a plea to fans to “please come back.”

Since the official full-time move to playing home games at Lumen Field, OL Reign have seen consistently increasing attendance. That number, however, has still hovered around an average of less than 10,000 fans in a stadium that fits nearly 70,000. This is absolutely a sign of progress for the club, but it is arguably still far insufficient.

Speaking ahead of the game, with the attendance record still just a prospect, Rapinoe acknowledged “I think [I] always struggle to talk about attendance because it is really frustrating and disappointing in a lot of ways. I feel like the product that we put out on the field is great and deserves to have a lot of people come watch.”

Both Rapinoe and Harvey expressed extreme frustration, both before and after the game, that it took Rapinoe retiring to get a deservedly large crowd. But at the end of the day, per Harvey, “hopefully, this will be an amazing experience for everyone, and [the team can] continue to build on that going into next year.” Owning a record like the Reign now do is great, but it means nothing if they can’t capitalize on it.

“All of this means nothing if we don’t capitalize on it, and that’s something that Pinoe has lived by. She has wanted to make the place that she’s part of a better place for now and for the future. And if we want this club to be where we want it to go and what we all believe it should be, we have to get these people back. And if we don’t, we’re letting Pinoe down,” Harvey said after the game.

The marketing push clearly worked. The heavily engaged crowd wanted to watch this team play. If that many people showed up at 5pm on a Friday, the Reign should be able to get at least those who didn’t travel long distances to continuously show up.

The large crowd was undoubtedly very engaged and loud the entire night, but certainly one of the biggest cheers of the night came during Rapinoe’s speech, which included a sweet “I love you so much babe,” to her fiancee, and fellow Seattle superstar, Sue Bird. If there is one thing Seattle loves even more than Rapinoe or Bird individually, it is their gay Seattle power couple.

Oct 6, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe (15) and her partner Sue Bird react after the game against Washington Spirit at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Rapinoe joked with press the day before her big night that sometimes she forgets how loved she is in Seattle because she often plays “second fiddle.” Continuing in that classic sarcastic Rapinoe tone, “it’s fine, keeps me humble.”

Maybe it seems silly how much Seattle loves their relationship, but both players have been incredibly outspoken about being members of the LGBTQ+ community and they have helped countless people feel comfortable in their own sexuality. To see such famous athletes who were top players in their game for so long is unexplainably affirming to fans and players alike. And as a result, one cannot ignore the beauty of Rapinoe and Bird sharing their love with their city and its supportive people who helped them grow.

Oct 6, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; The OL Reign starting lineup poses with images of OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe (15) before the game against the Washington Spirit at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

It was a night, once again fittingly, filled with entertainment and joy. It was never just a game, it was a time to be joyful in celebration of a player who has brought so much light, laughter, and joy to the game and the world. And everything the team did on the day reflected that joy.

Though the team desperately wanted a win, the result in no way dampened the after-party mood for the Reign. While the team is focused on triumphing and has its eyes on the playoff race (and made sure to say as much post-game), they didn’t lose and remain alive, so celebrations rightfully continued. The NWSL has never seen a retirement like this, and maybe never will again – everyone deserves to celebrate.

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