_In this My Game In My Words series, _The Athletic _builds towards the Women’s World Cup by talking to leading players around the world to find out how they think about football, why they play the way they do and to reflect — through looking back at their key career moments — on their achievements so far. _

Megan Rapinoe emerges from the locker room at OL Reign’s training facility and sits at one of the tables dotting the upper level of the building, overlooking an indoor field. There’s a banner featuring an action shot of Rapinoe directly behind her from the early days, when the team was still Seattle Reign FC. It’s a subtle reminder that she’s been here since the beginning, a decade ago.

Her teammates trickle out in ones and twos, head coach Laura Harvey is floating around too. Some, when they realize Rapinoe’s watching back old clips of herself, wander over to figure out which one she’s looking at, offer up their own commentary or knock her on the shoulder.

It’s May 26 in Seattle, and Rapinoe’s retirement announcement is still almost two months away. Though in many ways, the announcement is expected. Rapinoe’s one of few Reign players left from day one of the team, along with Jess Fishlock and Lu Barnes — it’s not unheard of in the NWSL, which is just over a decade old, but you can count those players on a single hand. It can only last for so long.

Rapinoe’s ready to watch and talk soccer. But not just the typical highlights. The stuff players don’t usually talk about, too. The little things that can win matches and grate on opponents.

Rapinoe watching moments from throughout her career. (Photo: Meg Linehan, photographed on Google Pixel)

‘Just epic s—housery’

We start with the end: the art of protecting a slim lead and killing off a match by any means necessary — something Rapinoe deems “a brutal reality” before shrugging a little.

“I would love to play the beautiful game and do all the things and pass and score goals and all of it, but the whole point is winning. That is fun. That’s the most fun part,” she says.

If you can win and do it with great play? Amazing. But it’s not the point.

“Teams are throwing every single thing they possibly can,” Rapinoe says. “They’re going to be overly aggressive. I know how to use my body really well to put myself in between (a defender and the ball), to draw fouls or bait people into fouls. That’s your responsibility not to foul. It’s not my responsibility to have you not foul me, and I’m not going to do you any favors by using any of my might to stay up.”

This is especially true in a World Cup, which, for Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s national team, starts Friday at 9 p.m. ET against Vietnam.

“You’re trying to get to the next game, period. The only thing that matters is winning. It doesn’t really matter how you do it,” Rapinoe says, gesturing to the tail end of the 2019 match against Spain that’s playing silently on the laptop before her. This game, she says, is a good example. A better one? The quarterfinal against France. “The last 30 minutes of that game was just epic s—housery.”

She finds this skill easier in the NWSL, not that she wants to insult other players in the league, but Rapinoe says play in the league can be more aggressive. “At the end of the game, they’re just kind of stabbing at (the ball),” she says.

“I understand which players are doing that and when you just have to step in front and fall down. I am getting fouled, but it’s just like, could I stay on my feet? Yeah, probably, but why would I do that? I’m going to use what I know you’re trying to do against you.”

But sometimes, she really is doing things just to do them.

Take the infamous eavesdropping incident in a 2018 Tournament of Nations match against Brazil. Marta and two other players are huddled around a free kick, hands on their hips. Rapinoe stands, silently, not even smiling, just off Marta’s shoulder.

Rapinoe watches the clip. “What’s going on?” she says, doing a little innocent voice, as Marta on-screen finally looks up and does a double take for Rapinoe’s enormous, sh—eating grin in response.

“I also just really enjoy it, it’s fun and part of the game to have a personality within the game. Sometimes it’s with referees. Sometimes it’s with players, sometimes it’s with fans. I always just want to be talking and yakking and seeing what’s going on — not even to get an advantage, sometimes it’s just funny to do it.”

She has a hint of that same smile on her face as she watches it back.

“I can’t resist any joke whatsoever, no matter how inappropriate the timing is,” she says. “So anytime I can find a way to get a laugh, even just for myself, or get a joke in, I will.”

As amusing as it can be, for Rapinoe there is a serious element to this part of the game — a skill level, an art. She still doesn’t understand why more teams and players don’t embrace it, even as officials are now taking a different approach to stoppage time in matches. FIFA has already said to expect lengthier added time in both halves to fully account for stoppages in play, just like what happened in the men’s World Cup.

Rapinoe’s in favor of the change, but she also thinks it just means everyone has to be more clever. It’s more than just dribbling to the corner, it’s knowing when to draw fouls, when to stay on your feet.

“I tell Rose (Lavelle) all the time, ‘They did hit your ankle, and you’re in their half. You could just fall. You’re actually doing us a disservice because they’re doing everything they can, they’ll hit you five times without you falling, and then you do too much and now we’ve lost the ball.’”

And Rapinoe certainly thinks that it suits the USWNT to earn dead balls, especially late in a game.

“We can be very disciplined and very organized and very cutthroat about what we’re doing. There’s no need to do anything stupid,” she says. “You can boot the ball further, leave the ball on the ground, walk over, stand over it, talk, that’s gonna kill the game.”

There is a balance though. You have to be smart, she says, and not annoy the referee too much by lollygagging, only to end up with more time on the clock.

“If you can kill the game, win the game and move on, who cares what anybody says about how you did it?”

Rapinoe announced that she will retire after the 2023 NWSL season (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

‘I literally do like five things over and over and over again’

In this final year of her career, it’s no secret that Rapinoe’s role has changed on the national team. It’s one of the bigger narratives heading into the tournament. The personnel has changed from the U.S.’s 2019 World Cup win and the younger generation is taking more and more minutes, with that’s the introduction of Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman, the resurgence of Mal Swanson (then her loss via injury) and the retirement of Carli Lloyd.

With chemistry to build on this summer, Rapinoe jokes first about players entering the USWNT environment needing to learn her tendencies.

“So wild because I’ve been here for 1,000 years, I literally do like five things over and over and over again,” she says in her usual deadpan delivery, before she answers the question for real: it’s on her. Since she’s the one who’s been around, she feels she can adjust better and more quickly.

The lessons for her are by example. “This is actually how you get on the field,” she says, laughing, “and build peoples’ trust. Showing this is how you open up space, that’s how you get people open. The defense can’t cover everything at one time, so you have to make it difficult, make their choices difficult. Whatever you want to give us? We’ll kill you with that.”

It has been difficult at times. She knows how to play with Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan, playing with Alex Morgan is “super easy and second nature.” As new people have entered, it’s gotten “clunky” at times, she admits, but the solution is consistency and communication around her runs, her movement and her expectation of other players.

Rapinoe’s ability to read space has paid off for the USWNT plenty over the years, but take, for instance, her goal against Germany last fall. Watching the clip, Rapinoe murmurs to herself, “Just hanging out over there,” as Morgan’s first attempt at a central pass is intercepted by Felicitas Rauch, before Ashley Sanchez applies pressure and forces a turnover back to Morgan.

This time, Morgan’s cross from the endline finds a wide-open Rapinoe, who threads the needle past a diving defender and the goalkeeper.

“I try not to do any unnecessary running whatsoever,” Rapinoe says, much to nearby OL Reign head coach Harvey’s amusement.

“Being in the right place at the right time is the most important thing,” Rapinoe continues. “The best players are always in the right spot, and that’s why they’re the best. That’s why they have assists and goals and are impactful, so the positioning of yourself in the right place is the movement. Sometimes you need to move and run and make the sacrificial run, but sometimes you just need to stand there.”

It’s an ongoing discussion she’s been having with 21-year-old Rodman. Rapinoe thinks Rodman’s instincts are good, but she also thinks sometimes Rodman does too much work on her defensive recoveries.

“She can recover everywhere,” Rapinoe says, “but I’m like, ‘You don’t have to.’”

The entire approach can be simplified down to one defining concept: “I’m constantly trying to position myself in a dangerous place.”

Next, a clip from a Reign game against the Orlando Pride in October 2022, during the team’s run to the NWSL Shield. (The official NWSL highlight clip somehow misses out on her crucial first and second touch, but it’s in the replay, beginning at the :37 mark.)

“That honestly might be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my career, individual skill-wise. Yeah, that second touch was,” she doesn’t bother finishing the sentence. We just know. She says she didn’t realize in the moment how good that second touch was until she watched it back after the game.

“Just getting it out of my feet like that and getting away from any kind of pressure and being able to set me up to do that,” she says, referring to her assist to forward Bethany Balcer. But did she see the run from Balcer that quickly?

“I’m just putting it into a dangerous spot and you need to be there,” she says. That knowledge is something Balcer has, thanks to years of playing alongside Rapinoe now. It’s something Rapinoe says everyone who plays with her knows. “Sometimes if we have to have a look about it, it’s already a little bit too late. But Boats (Balcer) is so good running across the near post like that.”

For this clip, Rapinoe has a secret. “I probably didn’t mean the (nut)meg, if I have to say it. I want to be a liar here.”

Rapinoe nutmegs the defender, putting the ball right through her legs.

The key, according to Rapinoe, is the ability to take little touches like this in order to deceive. Her defender is in charge of reading her, and making it harder to do that is a difference-maker. Ensuring that the teammate on the other end of that pass knows what she’s about to do is also key, but Rapinoe says there’s a little extra give on a play like this.

“For players who are smart like me and play like that — Kristie (Mewis) is one of them, Lindsey (Horan) is one of them, Crystal (Dunn)’s one of them — who use that deception a lot, it’s really easy for them to understand where I’m going. Then it doesn’t have to be perfect because there’s so much deception,” she says. “That’s the other part of it, sometimes even with the balls like the one to Bethany, if you’re putting it in a dangerous position early like that and it’s unexpected, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be pinpoint. You have a bit more leeway, but you’ve given yourself that leeway by doing it in a way that people weren’t expecting.”

That clip reveals Rapinoe’s favorite: passing. She swoons a little when she starts to talk about it, she loves passing. She loves the assist that sets up the assist. The pass that can cut a team open like Meredith Grey with a scalpel — but it’s also something she struggles to explain precisely.

“I just feel where space is, and feel where I am in the space,” she says. “Passing is the best, I love it, maybe even more than scoring goals. So much fun when you know you’ve unlocked somebody.”

Rapinoe points to a clip she’d already watched, a tidy sequence of wing interplay between herself, Horan and Emily Sonnett, which starts practically at their corner flag and results in Rapinoe right-footing it through two Brazilian players ahead to Lynn Williams.

Rapinoe receives a pass with some space to operate.

“The little pass to Lindsey, that just opens everything up. Now we can play…”

“The really simple, against-the-grain or diagonal balls are so deadly. You really can’t do anything about it. Your team is set up to keep you on one side and when you can slip it out the other side? The best,” she says, a giant grin on her face.

Rapinoe laces a long pass ahead to Williams, past all of Brazil’s defenders.

“I’m like, ‘Got ‘em!’”

‘I feel like I’m in therapy right now’

The bronze medal match against Australia during the 2021 Olympics came after a long, strange, uncharacteristic tournament for the USWNT. The day before the match, she told head coach Vlatko Andonovski, “Maybe I’ll just shoot it!”


An unbelievable corner by Megan Rapinoe! #TokyoOlympics x @USWNT

Stream: https://t.co/FmEtvutDRA pic.twitter.com/jvod0GDyAB

— NBC Olympics & Paralympics (@NBCOlympics) August 5, 2021

It wasn’t the first time she had scored an Olimpico (a goal scored straight from a corner kick) in the Olympics either, which is a rare goal to begin with, but pulling off two in two different Games is Rapinoe-levels of absurd and elite. In fact, Rapinoe’s first, which came at London 2012, was the first ever Olimpico in the Olympics.

“Sometimes it’s like, I’m not totally shooting it but I’m not not shooting it, but I’m thinking about it, and I’m trying to put it in the most dangerous place. But I did know that it was going to be a little bit more open, so I tried to just—” she gestures in the direction of the laptop.

Maybe less important than the technique on this one is that she very much has evidence that it was intentional. “I was claiming that one, because I said it the day before.”

We watch again, this time focusing less on her and more on what’s happening in front of goal.

“Not exactly prowess at the back post, lovey, Pressy,” she says with fondness for Christen Press. “I just felt it was a little exposed, and I don’t trust most goalkeepers — except ours. Lys (Alyssa Naeher) would never let something like this happen, way too cautious.”

If there’s something that Rapinoe can truly hang her hat on, though, it’s the penalty kick.

And for Rapinoe, routine is queen.

“I don’t think I could overstate that enough because you cannot control what it’s going to feel like in this moment, in a bigger moment, in the biggest moment.” The routine gives her a process, a script — comfort despite the uncertainty of every different time she’s taken one.

She relies on that routine, detouring from the selected clips and telling the story of a penalty she had recently taken in Louisville (notably during the NWSL’s 1,000th game) — and one that she found herself nervous to take.

“I haven’t taken one in a while, my season is just getting going, I feel like I haven’t quite really found the form that I want to get into still,” she says. But the routine allowed her to distance herself from that emotion and find it interesting rather than disruptive. The emotion didn’t take over. Still, she found herself touching her shirt more. Her shorts, too.

“Because I have such a routine, I notice when something’s different,” she says.

“I feel like I’m in therapy right now. But I am,” she laughs, “so it’s helping.”

There’s a story she’s told before, such as on an episode of the “Snacks” podcast with Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams.

“I always encourage people to say out loud the thing that they’re scared of,” Rapinoe says. “Literally, you could lose the World Cup, and what are you going to do?”

Rapinoe detours a little further with the storytelling, recounting how Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning said he wasn’t embarrassed after a lopsided Super Bowl defeat — they didn’t purposefully lose, they had gone out and done their best. That’s stuck with her.

“I would bet on myself taking it, I would bet on my teammates taking it. I always want to take one and do my best. This is literally all you can do, right?”

There’s one thing about penalties people always ask her about, and she doesn’t know how to answer: When does she decide where she’s placing the ball?

“I don’t really know. It’s somewhere in the lead-up,” she finally says with a shrug and a laugh.

“I don’t really watch the goalkeepers, either. I feel what they’re doing, but ultimately, if you can smack it hard and in a good enough place, I don’t think they can save it.”

There’s one final clip for her to watch, one that might sum up the different elements of her game that we’ve been discussing for the better part of an hour. Harvey’s still floating around behind us, and she walks over for this one because it’s another Reign clip — Rapinoe’s late, stoppage time winner against the Pride in August 2022.

Rapinoe watches it through once and starts laughing when she hits her celebration, whipping off her shirt.

“I just love the end of a game,” she sighs.

Rapinoe watches it again, talking to her past self on the screen. “Get in the box, get in the box,” she says.

“Sometimes I do have a tendency to hang out too far back, and I was like, ‘You gotta get in there.’ It’s good, (Sofia Huerta) balls are ridiculous, she’s so special at that.”

Harvey interjects: “We were weather-delayed, as well.” The stands are nearly empty, to say a thousand people were there to see her score this goal would be generous.

“Rose doing something crazy at the top of the box, but it worked out,” Rapinoe says slowly, before everyone breaks into laughter.

“Oh, this is such a good ball. Outside of my foot, I just booted it. These games, literally anything can happen. There’s so much faking it until I make it, all the time. But you just have to do that, I’ve learned that from my years on the national team. It could happen, there’s two minutes left, you could score two goals. You have to believe that because otherwise, if you never try you’re never gonna do it.”

“I always feel like I have a really good spatial awareness of where I am, and where other players are,” Rapinoe says.

Maybe that’s the secret. It’s been a theme the whole conversation: that Spidey sense, of sorts. Rapinoe can’t always capture it in words, but it’s always there. It works for passing, scoring goals, movement, every facet of her game. She just knows when people are moving, even if she doesn’t know exactly where they are on the field.

Watching one penalty kick clip, she says, “I couldn’t have told you that she was going to dive right, I just have that feel a little bit. That’s probably my biggest talent, to be honest.”

Rapinoe confirms it to herself.

“That’s why I’m so good and why I’ve been able to be good, that’s my talent. I’m not an exceptional dribbler, I’m not faster. That’s how I’ve been able to unlock the game for myself, being able to find pockets, be in those pockets and find space and work off my teammates.”

It’s about time to go. This is the longest the two of us have ever talked about the actual soccer on the field, but there’s a game the next day. Rapinoe will go on to provide three assists in a 4-1 win for the Reign against Angel City FC, making her only the fifth player in the NWSL to do so. She loves passing.

Before she goes though, just one final question: any closing thoughts on your games in your words?

Rapinoe laughs.

“I mean, you just never know what’s going to happen, because I don’t. That’s what I always say.”

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(Photo illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic ; photos: Bob Drebin / ISI Photos, Brad Smith / USSF, Ira L. Black / Corbis)