Megan Rapinoe at 9-6-22 USWNT VS Nigeria
Megan Rapinoe at 9-6-22 USWNT VS Nigeria

USWNT September Friendlies: A Passing of the Torch

“I obviously know that this is an ending of one chapter, but it feels very much like a beginning.” – Megan Rapinoe.

Leave it to Megan Rapinoe to perfectly summarize an entire weekend of U.S. Women’s National Team games in one sentence. Sure, she was technically referring to her soccer career closing and the post-soccer chapter beginning. However, it’s a fitting quote to apply to the USWNT as a whole, especially as we saw two legends close their national team chapters and fresh faces open theirs.

Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe both played in their final USWNT games on September 21 and September 24 respectively, each player getting their own farewell match in one of the two games against South Africa.

Ertz took the plunge first, and the USWNT took down South Africa 3-0 on Thursday September 21 in Cincinnati Ohio for her final match. Megan Rapinoe followed, and the USA secured a win for purple-haired icon as well, tucking away two goals for a 2-0 win over South Africa on Sunday September 24 in Chicago, Illinois.

Goodbye Part 1: The Competitor

CINCINNATI, OHIO –  On Thursday September 21, the USWNT took down South Africa 3-0 in a game that featured two goals from Lynn Williams and one from Trinity Rodman. Most importantly, this game featured the final 35 minutes of Julie Ertz’s career. Unlike Megan Rapinoe, Ertz chose to not finish the National Women’s Soccer League season and is now officially retired.

When asked what she will miss most, Ertz had one answer on the tip of her tongue. “I’m going to miss competing at this level,” she said, without hesitation, and then added a few more to the list. 

“I’m going to miss the banter and jokes that just happen on a daily basis and sharing the love of the game with those around you… and the joy of scoring a near post header,” Ertz laughed as she added that last bit in with clear joy in her eyes.

That’s Julie Ertz. Possibly the greatest competitor this game has ever seen, a player who embodies all of the best parts of competition. There’s joy in Ertz’s battle. There’s a quiet knowing that she will do anything it takes for her team to win, both on and off the field.

Ertz raised the level of any team she was on by simply being herself. No matter the game, the score, or the opponent, Ertz competed at her highest level as her best self, and in doing so brought everyone up with her. 

“JJ”, as her teammates affectionately call her, is the teammate we all want. Before Julie’s final match, her teammates laughed that she was still breaking down plays and strategizing with teammates on her iPad. She was never afraid to do the dirty work and never needed the spotlight. She never shied away from it either. 

Ertz has been the quiet backbone of this team since she burst onto the scene as the unknown starting Centerback in the 2015 World Cup – then known as Julie Johnson – and the rest is history. 

For USWNT fans, there’s a calm that washes over knowing that Julie Ertz is on the field. Her presence will be missed greatly, but she’s quick to stifle concerns about the future without her. 

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Ertz remarked when asked about who would be next in line to replace her. There’s no replacing Julie Ertz. In fact, former Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski learned that the hard way. 

“She’s not looking for others to step in and be her, and neither are we,” said Interim Head Coach Twila Kilgore. “JJ and Pinoe’s message to the group is not ‘who is going to be the next me?’, it’s ‘be you, and love it.’”

Goodbye Part 2: The Icon

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS –  On Sunday September 24, the USWNT played South Africa for the second game in a row and defeated them 2-0. The second goal came off of a corner kick from Megan Rapinoe, and after Emily Sonnet headed the ball into the back of the net, the two locked eyes with smiles spread across their faces, and pranced towards until they embraced. In that moment, their joy was infectious and anyone watching couldn’t help but feel their own heart smile as it filled with love for the fun those two were having on the field.

Megan Rapinoe cannot be summed up with words, and the impact she has had on the game – and on the world outside of sport – cannot be, either. Kilgore came close, though, in the post-game press conference when she was asked about her favorite moment with Megan Rapinoe. 

“She just really radiates love,” Kilgore mused. “You never know what you’re going to get with Pinoe… if she gets a call it could be her friend or the President of the United States… but you know what you’re going to get on the field and it’s the same off the field. She’s going to champion everybody.”

Kilgore shared that, when she first got the job as Interim Head Coach, Rapinoe’s first call to Kilgore was to say “be you, and coach us.” 

Megan Rapinoe, affectionately known by her teammates and USWNT fans as ‘Pinoe’, has made it crystal clear that she is proud of what she has done on the field, but what brings her the most pride is the change she has affected in the world and the work she has done outside of those white lines.

As Rapinoe stood in the middle of Soldier Field addressing the crowd in her post-game speech, she once again spoke to the importance of the USWNT fight for gender equality, and how she hopes it extends beyond the world of sport.

“We fought so hard off the field to continue to create more space for ourselves to be who we are, but hopefully in turn more space for you guys to be who you are.” 

Megan Rapinoe is a real life Superhero, a person who just wants everyone to feel emboldened, and safe, to be themselves. She champions everyone and uses her platform – and her powers – to fight for equality for everyone.

A player that was once dropped from the USWNT roster after kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in 2015 fought her way back and stole the hearts of the world. She embodies bravery. She embodies the reason we love the USWNT: that they are willing to put themselves on the line to fight for the greater good.

Turning the Page

As two chapters closed, a new one began.

As both games wore on, veterans were subbed out and replaced with young talent. The new stars shone bright. Both Mia Fishel and Mary Alica Vignola (otherwise known as MA Vignola) got their first ever caps for the USWNT. 

Fishel played with an ease and comfort that players usually only get from experience. The creativity she displayed both individually and in combining with teammates who she barely has experience training with was outstanding. 

Meanwhile, Trinity Rodman, the 21 year old superstar from the Washington Spirit, scored two goals in two games. Most importantly, the team seemed to play with the joy and freedom that we are used to associating with the USWNT.

“I was watching some of our younger players listen to what the veterans had to say on such a monumental week. It’s really special, and I see [them] humbling taking all of that in,” said Kilgore when asked about also celebrating the first caps for Fishel and Vignola.

A changing of the guards in the most poetic way. New players taking in the core message from two departing veterans: “be yourself”. 

After a difficult three years where the USWNT seemed to struggle to return to their on-field identity, that was not the case in these last friendlies. The joy was back, the freedom was back, and it was the perfect way for Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe to pass the torch.