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Megan Rapinoe

USWNT might have lost at World Cup, but Megan Rapinoe won a long time ago

Nancy Armour

MELBOURNE, Australia — The people delighting in Megan Rapinoe’s misfortune forget something.

They can send their triumphant emails, rife with misspelling and misogyny, and it won’t change the fact she’s a two-time World Cup champion and played in another final. The right-wing media can spew more vitriol her way, and she’ll still have her Golden Ball and Golden Boot honors from four years ago.

The USWNT might have lost at this World Cup, but Rapinoe won long ago.

"I feel pretty good about my World Cup resume," she said Sunday night. "Obviously you want to win everything all the time. That’s the goal. But I feel really proud of it and really proud of this team and really proud of all the players I’ve played with.

"I’ve just loved every bit of my career," she added, tears filling her eyes. "I’ll miss it to death, but it also feels like the right time. And that’s OK."

WORLD CUP CENTRAL: 2023 Women's World Cup Live Scores, Schedules, Standings, Bracket and More

MORE:USWNT humbled by Sweden, again. Epic World Cup failure ends with penalty shootout

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United States forward Megan Rapinoe, left, and midfielder Lindsey Horan console forward Sophia Smith (11) after losing to Sweden in a penalty kick shootout during a Round of 16 match at the World Cup at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium in Melbourne, Australia on August 6, 2023.

The reaction both to the U.S. women’s elimination in the round of 16, their worst-ever finish at a World Cup or Olympics, and Rapinoe’s role in it was wholly predictable. Rapinoe missing a penalty and the U.S. women losing was the dream ending for the vocal but small minority that has had their knives out for Rapinoe and, to a lesser extent, the entire USWNT for years now.

When Rapinoe dared to protest racial injustice, she was branded – wrongly – as unpatriotic. They were further incensed when she said she and her teammates, who’ve spent their careers fighting for equality and against marginalization, didn’t want to pay homage to a president credibly accused of sexual assault and with a long track record of bigotry.

And God forbid Rapinoe and her teammates owned their greatness. Women who are the best at what they do and aren’t afraid to say it were simply too much for folks who wish the world could go back to simpler days, when women were meant to be trophies, not win them.

It’s a contradiction, these people who thump their chests and declare themselves to be "real" Americans while actively rooting against someone who so proudly wore the red, white and blue. But such is the world we live in – not that it ever fazed Rapinoe.

For more than a decade, Rapinoe showed up whenever the USWNT called and, more often than not, delivered. The United States doesn’t have that fourth star on its jersey, or an Olympic gold medal from 2012, without her.

She also helped little girls and young women see their worth, leading the fight against U.S. Soccer for equal pay.

"Megan and that generation have paved the way for us, and we would be doing them a disservice if we didn’t continue to push the needle forward," Lynn Williams said. "They fought so much for us off the field and on the field, so we owe a lot to them."

Those who hate Rapinoe like to think their opinion is shared by the entire country and are convinced, without a shred of evidence, that the USWNT’s popularity has plunged to the point no one cares about the team. They don’t realize it’s the view from the right-wing bubble that’s distorted.

Ratings for this World Cup broke records, just as they did four years ago. The mere sight of Rapinoe on the sideline draws deafening cheers. According to a poll, she’s viewed favorably by twice as many people as unfavorably.

The 38-year-old Rapinoe didn’t have a great World Cup, but very few of the U.S. women did. That she missed a penalty kick is almost as shocking as the USWNT’s struggles themselves.

Rapinoe hadn’t missed a penalty since 2018, and she made two against both Spain and France in the 2019 World Cup, along with one in the final. She’s so reliable coach Vlatko Andonovski said she’d be his first choice if his life depended on somebody making a PK.

And when she stepped to the spot, Rapinoe was certain she was going to make it. Until she sent the ball rocketing over the crossbar.

"Just a sick joke," Rapinoe said of what she thought. "Are you (expletive) kidding me, I’m gonna miss a penalty? … But that’s the way it goes."

United States forward Megan Rapinoe reacts after the USWNT's loss to Sweden during their World Cup round of 16 match at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium in Melbourne, Australia on August 6, 2023.

Sophia Smith and Kelley O’Hara also missed their PKs, and Sweden won when goal-line technology determined Lina Hurtig’s shot had grazed the goal line before Alyssa Naeher deflected it. The USWNT’s reign as champions was over, and so was Rapinoe’s World Cup career.

"This is life," she said. "I wish we were moving on and I could guarantee a championship. But it doesn’t take away anything from this experience or my career in general. I feel so lucky and so grateful to have played as long as I have and been on the successful teams that I have and be a part of a very special generation of players who have done so much on and off the field.

"It would be hard to feel disappointed in any type of way," she added. "Obviously the immediate disappointment of being out of the tournament. But in general, I’m OK."

Very few athletes get to end their careers in perfect fashion. Some, like Rapinoe, come up short in one last chase for glory while most simply fade away. Their legacies, however, endure.

Rapinoe is one of the best players the game has ever seen, and her impact off the field will carry on long after she's gone. She will continue to loom large – nowhere more than in the heads of the petty and small-minded people who have rooted against her.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

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