Tuesday, July 16, 2024

All week, there was a constant refrain: the NWSL Championship was set up for a poetic finish between two of the game’s greatest players. Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger would play against each other for one more trophy in the final match of their respective careers. “You couldn’t write a better ending,” Gotham forward Lynn Williams said on Friday, with a smile. It was supposed to be one last chance to give two players their flowers in real-time, no matter who ended victorious.

But only two minutes and 25 seconds into Saturday night’s showdown at Snapdragon Stadium in front of a rowdy, record 25,011 fans, Rapinoe’s chance to write her half of the story ended abruptly, and without warning. During an offensive run, Rapinoe slipped and fell to the pitch with an apparent non-contact injury. She grabbed at her lower right leg, first in disbelief and then with a typical wry smile.

“It sucks,” Rapinoe said after the game, her right foot encased in a boot. “I don’t think there’s any good things to say about it or a silver lining.

“I was feeling good. I was actually feeling some of my best I felt all season these last couple of weeks. I wasn’t feeling tight in my calf or Achilles or anything. So in classic form, I was like, ‘F—, who just kicked me?’ There’s nobody, I’m the one pressing, there’s nobody around me. So, I had that immediate thought and then just went to feel down (there), there’s nothing there. I don’t really think I need a scan (to know it was possibly a torn Achilles tendon).”

While she received a boot and crutches during halftime, Rapinoe sent a few texts to her mother and her fiancée Sue Bird, allowing the rest of the team to talk through the plan for the second half. “I wasn’t overly emotional about it,” Rapinoe said. “I mean, f—ing yeeted my Achilles in the sixth minute in my last game ever in the literal championship game.”

Before Rapinoe had exited the field for the final time, she limped over to Krieger and exchanged a hug, somehow still smiling that familiar smile. For her part, Krieger said that she had encouraged Rapinoe to wrap up her leg to get back out there, that she had never expected something like that to happen.

“Football is such a risk, right? You never know if it’s gonna be your last game, your last moment, and to happen to such an incredible player, in that moment, when there was such a build-up,” Krieger said.

It was hard, as Rapinoe gingerly stepped off the field, to not think of something Krieger had mentioned in a pre-match press conference, about why she still played despite all the wins and all the struggles she had gone through in her career. “I’m giving it everything I have and you don’t necessarily get all of it back in return. So you have to have that willingness and drive to want to do it for yourself because you love it,” she said.

Ali Krieger and Megan Rapinoe end their careers together. (Photo by Ben Nichols/Getty Images)

This year, Rapinoe hasn’t always gotten much back from the game. She missed her penalty during the USWNT’s World Cup loss to Sweden this summer. She had never missed a penalty before that moment. Like Saturday, that night in Melbourne ended with tears and laughter and that note of disbelief that such a trusted part of her game had let her down in such a major moment. But on Saturday, it felt like nothing more than a fluke, a bad step, something she never could have seen coming, or even attempted to avoid.

The moment affected the match, for both teams. “When I saw her put her head back,” Gotham forward and the game’s MVP Midge Purce said, “I’ve seen her go down (before), and it was really sad. Then one of the girls on their team started crying, and I turned to (Yazmeen Ryan), and I said let’s go to her because she was clearly upset. It’s hard. I think that definitely affected them a lot.”

Purce helped Gotham take the lead later that half, setting up Lynn Williams’ opening goal by running through three OL Reign defenders. Rose Lavelle equalized, but Purce again set up the go-ahead goal, giving her team the lead before halftime — one they would never relinquish.

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