Megan Rapinoe pondered retirement, then found ‘renewed joy and passion’ in new USWNT role

There were times when Megan Rapinoe wondered whether she was finished. There were days when rehab got arduous, and rewards seemed distant, and scary thoughts stewed. “Do I even want to do this?” Rapinoe wondered as she battled a string of vexing injuries this past spring.

“Do I even want to play anymore?”

She’d been playing for three decades, from the boundless fields of Palo Cedro, California, to sport’s biggest stages. She’d trained daily and performed regularly, relishing the “wild s***” that happened along the way. She won World Cups and Olympic medals and National Women’s Soccer League shields. She pushed and pushed, to unprecedented heights, almost habitually, through her 36th birthday — and then, this past year, she asked herself: Why?

“Because I don't need to play,” she told Yahoo Sports, explaining the introspective process she grappled with. “I can do other things. I have a lot of other opportunities. Is [playing soccer] something that I actually want to choose? Or am I just kinda in the hamster wheel and don't want to get off?”

So, over the past year, she slowed down and stepped off.

And there, in the space she created for herself, she found answers — but health complicated them. She strained the peroneal tendon in her ankle during the NWSL preseason. A frustrating recovery process sidelined her for most of two months. The day after she finally conquered it, she pulled her calf. Then a recurring back injury spasmed, and “f***,” Rapinoe thought, “are you kidding me?”

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 05: Megan Rapinoe #15 of the United States reacts during the training session before their match against Nigeria at Reeves Field at American University on September 5, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)
Injuries forced Megan Rapinoe to question her playing career. Now she's feeling reborn and playing really good soccer again. (Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images) (Ira L. Black - Corbis via Getty Images)

Along the way, she began broaching broader questions, such as: “Is my body telling me something?”

“Is this even what I want in my life?”

She’d already told herself: “It’s OK if you’re done.”

She decided, though, that she wasn’t. And the past three months have reaffirmed why. Upon overcoming the injuries, and reacquainting with competitive soccer, she felt a “renewed joy and passion” for the game. At 37, she feels “reenergized,” and eager to learn and train with her club team, the OL Reign. She scored a stoppage-time winner late last month, her fourth goal in three games. She celebrated by ripping off her shirt and, with a jubilant smile, flinging it into the air.

She is also seemingly en route to the 2023 Women's World Cup, her fourth — but here, with the U.S. national team, is where her story diverges. This, she knows, is “a very new chapter of my career.” Three years after cradling the golden boot and golden ball at the 2019 World Cup, she has started just one USWNT game in 2022.

She is, however, OK with that. Of course, she says, she wants “to play as many minutes as possible.” She feels sharp, inspired, and expressive when she buzzes around fields. But does she want to start knockout-round games next summer in Australia and New Zealand?

“No,” she said in a phone interview last week. “If I'm really honest, like, should I be the best person to be starting those games? No, definitely not.”

Inside Rapinoe's decision to accept USWNT reserve role

The way Rapinoe tells it, she realized after Tokyo, even after scoring twice in an Olympic bronze-medal triumph, that her USWNT role was about to change. “I knew that things weren't going to be the same, and couldn't be the same, and I didn't want them to be the same,” she says. When asked why, she says, “I mean, I just can't play that many minutes. I don't think I can have that kind of impact and output that I did early in my career.”

What she didn’t know was what, exactly, her new role would entail; or whether a role that benefited both her and the team even existed.

She began working through those questions last fall, on a series of calls with USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, with whom she has “a really good, honest relationship” that dates back to his days with the Reign.

On their first call, Andonovski described the process he was about to engineer. He had a new generation of players, headlined by a few in Rapinoe’s position, that he wanted to elevate and evaluate so that an aging USWNT could evolve. To integrate those players, he’d need to exclude veterans like Rapinoe from a few training camps. Rapinoe understood this — and frankly, she says, she didn’t even want to go to Australia for the first of those camps last November.

[It's fantasy football season: Create or join a league now!]

Her questions were more so about the next phase of that evolution. Rapinoe, who’ll be 38 next summer, told Andonovski what she still felt she could contribute to the USWNT, and she asked him: Is that something you want? Andonovski outlined a reserve role and asked Rapinoe: Is that something you want?

Rapinoe, who “felt like I still have so much to offer, and still can play at a super high level,” then had to ask herself: “Are you OK coming off the bench? Are you OK playing 30 minutes? Are you OK playing no minutes?”

Andonovski said they came away from the conversation with a shared understanding: “If she's healthy, and if she's fit to get minutes, then she will be on the roster.”

Her return, in June for the CONCACAF W Championship, which served as World Cup and Olympic qualifying, sparked widespread public skepticism. Rapinoe, at the time of the announcement, had not started a competitive soccer game of any kind in 2022. Andonovski answered the skepticism by hailing Rapinoe’s “experience” and “winning mentality,” and by saying that “her knowledge and understanding is very valuable for the group.”

Andonovski wants to clarify, though: “Megan is not here just because she's a good leader [and] good for our environment. Megan, first and foremost, is here because she's a good player. … Ever since she came back from the injury, she's a game-changer.” He said those words last week, after a month in which Rapinoe scored or created seven goals in four NWSL games. He said he’d feel “very comfortable” using her in high-leverage situations.

But he has also indicated that Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, two early-20s NWSL stars, are solidified as his starting wingers. Rapinoe will push them, but if she were to crave their starting spots, “there's just gonna be tension; I'm probably gonna always be miserable,” Rapinoe says. “Because that's not A) what I can even do anymore, and B) what Vlatko wants.”

KANSAS CITY, KS - SEPTEMBER 03:  Megan Rapinoe #15 of United States heads the ball towards the goal during the second half of an international friendly match against Nigeria at Children's Mercy Park on September 3, 2022 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe heads the ball during an international friendly match against Nigeria at Children's Mercy Park on Sept. 3, 2022 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) (Ed Zurga via Getty Images)

So no, she says, she doesn’t want to start next summer, even on a stage she’s uniquely qualified to grace. “I think if I'm starting all those games, something's gone horribly wrong, frankly,” she reiterates. “Like, Mal should be starting those games, and Soph should be starting those games, and [Trinity Rodman] should be coming off the bench and having that kind of energy.

“Do I still have a lot to give? Yeah,” she continues. “But first of all, physically, I can't start all the games and play all the games. … [And] I don't think that would be best for the team. I don't think that that's really gonna give us the best opportunity to win a World Cup.”

Rapinoe finds what she was searching for

The selflessness sounded wonderful in theory. The “real test,” Rapinoe knew, would arrive in June, when she’d rejoin a team in transition for the W Championship and find out: “What is this [role] actually gonna look like? Is it gonna feel good for everyone? Is it gonna be worth it on both sides?”

But before it arrived, the injuries did, and all sorts of other questions swirled.

Rapinoe had never seriously considered retirement. After the 2019 World Cup, as her celebrity soared, there were phases of frustration when soccer kept her away from the many things that starring at a World Cup (while sparring with the President) allows a person to explore. But there were also times when she felt the opposite; when fame and other interests distracted from soccer.

She eventually wants to pursue those other passions. Life without soccer, she says, is “gonna be great.” She has “amazing people” around her, and “a whole business structure set up that, when I am ready to be done, then I can put so much more effort into.”

But she also knows: “There's never gonna be anything like winning a World Cup, or playing in front of 50,000 people.” Nothing will ever replicate that rush she felt at the Parc de Princes in 2019, or that she could feel next summer. So why not keep chasing it?

She felt intrigued and invigorated by the new role Andonovski had outlined. The “annoying, niggling, back-to-back-to-back” injuries sent her veering off course, to a place where, “honestly, some days, I didn't want to do anything,” she says. But as she began to heal, she returned to thinking rationally, and rediscovered the positivity that has fueled so much of her career.

Then she flew to Colorado in June, for her first camp in eight months, and for the first paragraph of this new chapter. And “right away, it felt very natural, it felt really good,” she says. She did not start a single match at the W Championship, and did not get off the bench in the final, but did “feel super appreciated, and also motivated to continue to get better.”

And that, in the end, is what she was searching for. To feel valued and energized. She is no longer “just in the river and on the current,” letting the rhythms of a traditional career arc guide her and carry her wherever they may. She is here because she wants to be.

“I have nothing to prove,” she says, recalling a Stephen Curry quote that sums up her present outlook. “But everything to accomplish.”