Reporting from Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, California.
We are told we cannot believe in fairytales. There is just too much of the real world that confronts us day in, day out, for so simple a story to ever come true.
But this is sports, and sports have a way of making you feel as if maybe, this time, the fairytale will have a happy ending. It’s happened before, after all; it could obviously happen again.
And then Megan Rapinoe crumples to the pitch in the third minute of the NWSL Championship game, the final moment of one of the most extraordinary careers in sports history. The fairytale once again fades out of view, the messy reality of life taking its cold, unblinking place. Backup keeper Laurel Ivory takes the burden of Rapinoe’s weight against her shoulder. Gotham FC head coach Juan Carlos Amorós offers his hand in respect as she passes. This really is it.
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Nothing prepares you for such a moment. This was to be the final line on a résumé 10 miles long, made all the more scintillating thanks to the same being said on the opposite end of the pitch, with longtime friend Ali Krieger closing the book on her professional life on the very same night. The league, the teams, the media — all framed this as a battle between two legends. They would battle until the very end. Why didn’t the randomness of existence listen to the narratives we demanded of this contest?
Rapinoe returned to the sideline on crutches, doubtlessly pondering these very questions, only three months’ removed from her penalty shank in the World Cup, her final moment in a competitive international match. The cameras had caught her choking on her own laughter as she had been treated by the medical staff, a mirror image of the ironic, coping reaction to that penalty miss. To the very end, Rapinoe’s pain could only be swallowed by the knowing wince of gallows humor. She pushed past it, cheering her teammates until the final whistle.
Another narrative had to emerge as the game progressed, through sheer force of desire to make the universe rational again. This, naturally, would be how the Reign responded — or not — to the shock of their talisman limping off the pitch. The team looked stunned upon Lynn Williams’s 24th-minute pass into the back of the net. These are professionals, and to say that they couldn’t reset after the Rapinoe injury would sell them short. But it nagged in the back of your mind. We needed it all to make sense.
Such concern didn’t nag at Rose Lavelle. Five minutes later, after a feed from Rapinoe’s replacement Bethany Balcer, Lavelle had the Gotham back line beat and the score was even. They had gone for the throat against the run of play, at the moment when no one would have blamed them for processing their shock in real time.
And then Esther González drilled a header from a Midge Purce corner kick, and the air let out of the balloon once more. But still they fought on. Huerta began to control her flank, beating Jenna Nighswonger 1v1 as the second half stretched on. Veronica Latsko yelled for a penalty after Nighswonger scythed her down in the box. No less determined, they believed they could exorcise a ghost they never imagined they’d be confronted with.
They had to fight for Pinoe. Their work rate never lagged, even when they occasionally chased shadows. Reign head coach Laura Harvey bellowed and gnashed her teeth as regulation time shrank and shrank. Rapinoe had to raise the trophy. She just had to.
Jess Fishlock harried and chased. Lavelle dribbled and danced. Emily Sonnett fought for space. Balcer, brought on for Rapinoe so early in the game, defended from the front with purpose. But nowhere could the Reign take control of any area of the pitch for too long.
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There was another fairytale to be written, Ali Krieger’s. Elyse Bennett was free in space in added time, almost certainly a goal unless keeper Mandy Haught got a hand to it. She did; the only problem was that it was outside the penalty area. After a short video review, Haught was sent off. Amorós had used all three substitution windows. In came Nealy Martin to stand in goal. Strong words and recriminations abounded. Amorós’ bench were flashed a yellow card. The Reign stood over the ball. Launch. Into the wall.
The Reign could not write their fairytale ending. They struggled through their emotions after the game, the revelation slowly unfurling that there was no explanation. Lauren Barnes fought through tears and could only say of Rapinoe’s injury that “it’s a bummer that that had to happen.” Laura Harvey sputtered through frustration with officiating and still landed at the void of reason. “In big games like this, you need a little bit of luck,” she said. “We didn’t get that tonight.”
It was Rapinoe herself who underlined the absurdity of the situation.
“I don’t deserve this.”
She knows what that really means. “You don’t always get the perfect ending,” she mused, cracking jokes in her final press conference as a professional athlete while saying she likely tore her Achilles. Rapinoe’s legacy will be cemented elsewhere. At Snapdragon Stadium on a crisp November evening, she stood in her team’s huddle as Gotham celebrated behind her. She hugged her teammates, fighting the emotions churning through her body. She let out the tears into the shoulder of her fiancée, Gotham minority owner Sue Bird. Reign supporters burst into one final rendition of “Seven Nation Army,” personalized just for her.
Rapinoe, a legend until the end, would not ride off into the sunset. She was instead bound to that which had no narrative, no clear chain of cause and effect, no romance, no drama: just life.
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