Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Megan Rapinoe prepares for OL Reign sendoff amid NWSL playoff chase: ‘These are big, important games for us’

TUKWILA, WA– It was another rainy Monday at the Starfire Sports Complex, but that didn’t stop OL Reign from getting in another competitive training session. After a relatively sunny morning in the Emerald City, the drizzle picked up just as the team currently sitting in the sixth and final spot in the National Women’s Soccer League took the field.  

OL Reign are coming off a 1-1 draw against the North Carolina Courage in their penultimate home match of 2023, and the second to last home game in the career of forward Megan Rapinoe. After 11 seasons with the Seattle club – and another six pro years before the NWSL’s inaugural season – the Redding, California native is calling it a career. 

Rapinoe was spared from the rain at training. She and the other players who competed in Sunday’s match remained inside to focus on recovery. For her part, Rapinoe played 90 minutes and collected an assist on Bethany Balcer’s first-half header in the 21st minute. 

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Before retirement, a playoff chase for Rapinoe

Under normal circumstances, the OL Reign would be laser-focused on securing a playoff spot in an especially chaotic year. So far, the San Diego Wave are the only ones to have clinched a playoff berth with two weeks left in the regular season. However, this season’s final push is extra special and bittersweet. 

“It’s sort of easy and hard at the same time,” Rapinoe told CBS Sports Monday while walking on the campus of the Starfire Sports Complex. 

On one hand, returning to her club team after celebrating her U.S. women’s national team retirement is a return to the familiar. However, she still must juggle answering questions about that moment, and h-offer retirement, with preparing for a push for the playoffs and her OL Reign send off this Friday at Lumen Field. 

The Reign are in sixth place ahead of Friday’s match against the Washington Spirit, 8 p.m. ET on CBS. If the season ended today, the Reign would be in. However, it doesn’t, and the club must get favorable results on Friday and next week in Chicago (you can catch all of the decision day action on Paramount+) against the Red Stars to take control of their destiny. 

“It’s nice to be able to, you know, have all my friends and have this be home and be able to share that. But then also, you know, you’ve got film to watch and things to do. These are big, important games for us.”

The Orlando Pride are tied with the Reign in points (28) and have won their last two matches. Meanwhile, the Reign have a loss and a draw in their previous two contests.  

“I don’t want to speak for her. To me, seeing her (daily), she feels like she’s ready,” OL Reign forward Tziarra King told CBS Sports. “She feels very much at peace with what’s going on but, of course, is still 110% wanting that last one, that last success, that last push in this last chapter. It’s been cool to see, to be around, to get to celebrate her, and just get these last few training and games with her, and have her in the locker room. Sad but beautiful.” 

Can the OL Reign make the playoffs and win for Rapinoe? Well, if you ask her, that’s the wrong question. 

“I think people do want to do it for me. I want to do it for myself. I want to do it for everyone. But I think, in general, if you need any extra motivation to do that every year, then you’re missing something,” Rapinoe said. 

Rapinoe is always one to maintain sight of the task at hand. What is also true is she transcends her club and sport, especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

“I think when you think of Pinoe, you think of a lot of different layers and a lot of different aspects of her life. But one part of that is Seattle and the Reign,” team captain Lauren “Lu” Barnes told CBS Sports last week. “We don’t have what we have here without her.” 

The California native was a freshman when the University of Portland won the 2005 NCAA Division I Championship. Rapinoe tallied a goal and an assist in the 4-0 victory over UCLA in the final. She would go on to play professionally in Chicago, Philadelphia, Sydney, Florida and France before the National Women’s Soccer League allocated her to Seattle. 

At first, Rapinoe wanted no part of it. 

Rapinoe’s early Seattle skepticism

“Oh, man. I didn’t want to be here. Obviously, I stand by that, but life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you want and need. And I think this is just – I can’t imagine not playing with the players that I have, and not being coached by Laura [Harvey], and not being here. It ended up being such a perfect place for me,” Rapinoe said. 

Harvey was still in England when she got word that Rapione was among the national team players allocated to the then Seattle Reign. Her message to Rapinoe and all her players was simple — “We’re excited to have you, and if you don’t want to be here, we understand.”

“That sort of sentiment of, ‘I only want you to be here if you want to be here,’ I think it was maybe a little bit of a different mentality than they’d had previously. And then when she came, I say this a lot about Pinoe, in that first year. she gave us light at the end of our tunnel,” Harvey told CBS Sports after training last month. 

The Reign were winless in their first ten matches, and then Rapinoe joined the club after her commitments to Lyon in France. In her NWSL debut, the club earned a 1-1 draw against the Western New York Flash, snapping a four-game goalless skid. 

“Results-wise, we were in a bad place,” Harvey reflected. “She walked through the door and just gave everybody a lift because we knew we weren’t far away. And she gave us the light to go, ‘We’re really close now.’ And it was literally overnight. We drew the next game, we won the one after that, and then we went on a little roll and … she was the catalyst of that.” 

Before Rapinoe arrived, the Reign head coach wondered if she had made a mistake. Was it the right decision to leave home and take a chance on another women’s professional league in the United States? 

Rapinoe’s arrival quelled those thoughts.

Rapinoe lifts Laura Harvey’s career

Today, Laura Harvey is the winningest coach in NWSL history with 95 wins and became the first bench boss to reach 200 matches at the helm. In July, the OL Reign extended Harvey’s contract to 2025. “I don’t think I would be where I am in my career if it wasn’t for Pinoe,” Harvey said. 

“There’s an acceptance that you need from players like that … she was willing to believe in it. And she was willing to carry my message. And she was willing to take my narrative where it needed to go. I think she elevated my career. And, you know, I’ll always be pretty grateful for that.”

Rapione has enjoyed playing in the Pacific Northwest, especially under Harvey. Never did the soon-to-be-retired Rapione ever think of leaving Seattle, at least not seriously.

“I think, especially after Laura left, I certainly wasn’t gonna stay playing for Farid (Benstiti) for very long,” Rapinoe told CBS Sports. 

Farid Benstiti took over after Vlakto Andonovski left the Reign to take the head coaching role for the U.S. Women’s National team. Benstiti was hired in January 2020 and resigned in July 2021 after reports of abusive behavior were brought to light. 

After the findings in the 2021 Yates Report, Benstiti was one of six coaches who may only return to the NWSL after they “accept personal responsibility” and “acknowledge wrongdoing,” according to the league. 

“If they were going to keep (Benstiti), that would have, you know, prompted other questions,” Rapinoe said. “Nothing ever really came to a point where it felt right, or even that was all that real.” 

So Rapinoe stayed and has come to love this part of the country. It’s where she’s met and made a home with her fiancée, retired Seattle Storm superstar Sue Bird. It’s where she was playing when she first took a knee in allyship and support of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016. And it’s where she has learned to be — or better yet, to show up fully as — her authentic self. 

“She alluded to it a little bit in her last game with the US National Team, that she got to grow up in front of the city as well, a little bit in Portland, a little bit here,” said Barnes.

The days of not wanting to be in Seattle are long gone, though she does look forward to spending the rainy season elsewhere, perhaps in New York, where Bird is originally from, and where she is now part owner of the NWSL’s NJ/NY Gotham FC side, and where the Seattle sports power couple also have a home. 

A future in the front office?

However, Seattle fans won’t get rid of her so quickly. Rapione has learned to “do retirement” from Sue and plans to join the five-time Olympic gold medalist at Seattle Storm and OL Reign games. 

And her advocacy and activism, of course, will continue. So, too, will her involvement in the sport, but she will not pull up on a water cooler near Harvey. “Definitely nothing in the day-to-day. That’s way too hard. I’ve spent my whole life in the day-to-day. So it’s like all the stress and none of the reward. It’s crazy! Coaches are crazy!” 

Instead, look for Rapinoe to embrace the business side of sports.  

“I have a lot to offer that is limited now because you just don’t have the bandwidth to really do that. So I’m really excited for what is coming next in that aspect.” 

Harvey is ready to welcome Rapione back with open arms in whatever role she deems is best. However, her longtime Reign coach agrees her impact would be exponential on the business side. 

“She can be uber influential for our club, within the city, getting people to want to be part of this thing. So, I would love to see her at the board level. I think that’s where she would have the most influence.” 

Giving Rapinoe a proper sendoff

But before being relegated to the c-suite, Rapione and the Reign must take care of business against the Spirit. The game will be held nationally on CBS at 5:00 p.m. local time. 

The OL Reign will honor Rapinoe and her family alongside the greater Seattle community. The King County Council has proclaimed this week Megan Rapinoe Week. Megan’s mother, Denise, and her twin sister, Rachel, will be honored as the Starbucks Legends of the Match Friday, and the club will hold an auction with proceeds going to Lambert House. 

While another NWSL Shield for finishing at the top of the table might be a stretch, the OL Reign hopes they can secure another playoff berth and aggressively push toward the Final. In the meantime, the club wants everyone to show up and honor Megan Rapinoe in the way she deserves. 

“Especially Seattle, but like everyone. Like, if you’re not coming to Seattle, what are you doing? Just show up. That’s literally it’s that simple,” said King. “Give her the flowers that she deserves. She deserves them all. Literally.” 

Lumen Field and other iconic buildings will shine brightly and boldly in “Pinoe Pink” and “Forever Rapinoe” flags will fly throughout the Emerald City in honor of their superstar. As of Wednesday, the club has surpassed 29,000 tickets sold and is on pace to break the NWSL attendance record (32,000) set by the San Diego Wave earlier this season. 

And Rapione has done it all in Seattle, for Seattle. Spending ten years in one place isn’t easy; even other Seattle athletes can appreciate how special it is. 

“It speaks to the player, it speaks to how gifted they are, and how good of a person they are,” Seattle Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak told CBS Sports during a preseason session on Sept. 29. “If an organization decides to keep you around for a long time, it usually means that you’re a good character person … so whenever you see that, it’s really cool.” 

“Congratulations to Megan and everything she’s been able to do on and off the pitch,” Former Seattle Storm forward and 2023 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart told CBS Sports last month in Brooklyn. 

“Really proud to see that she’s handled everything with grace and her ability to make it bigger than just soccer or women’s sports, but sports in general. She’s someone that I highly respect, love her, and wish that we could be there, but we’ll be cheering her on from afar.” 

Stewart and the New York Liberty will face the Las Vegas Aces on Sunday in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. Will Rapinoe and the OL Reign also have a chance at a title? Rapinoe hopes so. 

“We’ve had the teams that have been good enough and just haven’t performed well in the biggest moments to, you know, get that sort of elusive trophy,” Rapinoe said. “That’ll always be something that’s a little bit missing if I don’t get that, and a little bit of a hurt heartspace.”

First, they need a win on Friday and again on Oct. 15 against the Chicago Red Stars. Only four of our seven CBS Sports experts have the OL Reign as one of the six 2023 playoff contenders. But the Reign know what they must do and are all-in. 

“We owe her that, to give that back to her, of giving her everything we possibly can to send her off in the right way, which obviously for us would be to win the championship,” Harvey said. 

“Oct. 6 is an opportunity for us, another stepping stone for us to get to that. So I hope that that’s what it looks like.”

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