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Rapinoe’s last USWNT game leaves void that can’t be filled

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CHICAGO — Megan Rapinoe‘s teammates were egging her on. When Emily Sonnett scored a header after Rapinoe’s corner had been punched right to her in the 49th minute, Sonnett celebrated by jumping straight into Rapinoe’s arms.

Then the requests of Rapinoe came in: Strike the pose that she had made famous in France at the Women’s World Cup four years ago, just one more time. The United States women’s national soccer team star obliged, giving the 25,622 fans at Soldier Field one last memory to take home with them.

It was good timing, because five minutes later, the signal from the fourth official came in, indicating that Rapinoe was to be substituted.

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Seconds earlier, Rapinoe had nearly provided a storybook finish but could only fire her free kick just over the bar, rippling the top of the net and fooling some fans into thinking she had scored. The 38-year-old player tried to soak in her last moments in a U.S. jersey, hugging as many of her teammates as she could. She handed the captain’s armband to Lindsey Horan and gave a little bow before making way for Midge Purce. The crowd showed Rapinoe its appreciation with a standing ovation.

And with that, Rapinoe’s time as a U.S. international ended. She finished her women’s team career, one that started in 2006, with 203 appearances, 63 goals, two World Cups, an Olympic gold medal, a victorious equal-pay fight and too many indelible memories to count, including the type of send-off that most players only dream of.

“It’s hard to even know what you want,” Rapinoe said about the rejoicing around her final game. “But I think just having [a celebration] was really what I wanted, to be able to have that closure and for me to say goodbye, as well.”

There was a content, almost serene vibe to Rapinoe in the run-up to this match, though interspersed with the occasional tear. This is a player at peace with her decision to call time on her career, which still has a few weeks to run at club level with OL Reign. There also was knowledge that she had done everything she could both on and off the field. Her tank is approaching empty, with no need to refill it.

“To have this night come, and to actually feel it and see it from my teammates and from our staff and certainly from the fans who have been such a huge part of our success on and off the field, really, it was very special,” she said.

And so the period of transition the U.S. women’s team is going through continued apace, with a second win over South Africa in four days, this time by a score of 2-0. On Thursday, it was Julie Ertz saying her goodbyes. On Sunday, it was Rapinoe’s turn.

The pregame ceremonies carried with them their usual pomp. Members of Rapinoe’s family were there, as was fiancée, Sue Bird. An animated video blasted out lyrics, “All-American hero, Megan Rapinoe.” A framed jersey with Rapinoe’s name on it was presented.

Much like Thursday’s retirement party for Ertz, Rapinoe’s teammates did what they could to get her on the scoresheet, either with a goal or an assist. Given Rapinoe’s position as a winger, that was easier said than done, even as she took every set piece within striking distance of the goal. As a result, the play seemed a bit forced at times.

There were some near misses. Trinity Rodman couldn’t find Rapinoe with a centering feed in the 38th minute. Rapinoe then nearly bagged a send-off assist, only for Alex Morgan to head the ball wide.

It wasn’t until the U.S. played a bit more instinctively that it managed to find a breakthrough. Morgan corralled a ball into the box and delivered a delightful cross that Rodman volleyed home with power to spare in the 18th minute. Sonnett’s goal later made the game safe and was a fairer reflection of the Americans’ level of domination. South Africa didn’t register a single shot.

But as joyous as the evening was, there was no getting away from the fact that things still feel a bit messy around the women’s team right now. The disappointment of round-of-16 exit at the World Cup is something the players are still processing. The next manager has yet to be hired, with U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker saying on Sunday he is on track to make the hire by the time the team convenes for a training camp in December.

Transitions regarding personnel can be awkward too. Players become legends precisely because their attributes are so difficult to replace. That will be the case with Rapinoe and her combination of charisma and creativity. Crocker has stated he wants to move the women’s team into more of a possession-based game. But creating players capable of playing that style will take planning and execution.

It also will require patience. During her postgame remarks, Rapinoe spoke of creating space for the team’s players to be who they are — and even for fans to do the same. But the retirements of Ertz and Rapinoe have created a different kind of space. There are now holes that need to be filled. It’s a dynamic of which Rapinoe is well aware.

“I think just my personality and how long I’ve been on the team and obviously being in a leadership role, I mean, obviously, that leaves something,” Rapinoe said. “But I feel like we have made it a point as older players to talk about that with younger players and to not just kind of leave a vacuum. So I think it’s going to take a little bit of time. But that’s kind of the beauty of this team also is that next camp will come, and the roster will be different and the focus will shift immediately. And now they got to go win an Olympic gold medal, which we haven’t done in a long time.”

Interim manager Twila Kilgore is careful not to create unrealistic expectations. She doesn’t want the next generation trying to be the next Ertz or Rapinoe, but the first Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson or Mia Fishel, who made her national team debut in the match.

“It’s about being you to the very best of your ability,” Kilgore said. “That’s something that [Rapinoe] has brought to the table: Be unashamedly yourself, and I think that players will step up as they see the opportunity. They are stepping up. And as it becomes clearer and clearer that the role could be theirs permanently, we’ll see more and more confidence.”

The players are taking that advice to heart, with some of it coming from Rapinoe herself.

“It’s really funny because [Rapinoe] always talks about how everything she does, it’s not to inspire, it’s to help. But what she’s done is she’s inspired generations behind us, and I just know that someone’s going to step up and fill that role,” Purce said. “Nobody thought Megan Rapinoe was going to be Megan Rapinoe, but what she’s done is made it easier for the next Megan Rapinoe to shine.”

It’s a development in which Rapinoe will now fill an unfamiliar role, that of spectator. She’ll be watching with interest, though she also is confident the team will find its way.

“I think they’re obviously super motivated, and I like to think we’ve prepared them well to move forward,” Rapinoe said about the younger generation. “We’ll always be there to help when we can, but it’s their team now.”

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