SAN DIEGO — As the illustrious careers of two women’s soccer greats came to an end, each player wanted to see the other play one last time. In Sept., OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe texted NJ/NY Gotham FC defender Ali Krieger, asking about her last NWSL match. Both players planned on retiring at the end of the 2023 NWSL season, and Rapinoe wanted to attend Krieger’s final match.
Rapinoe expected a response with the date of a match around the end of the regular season. However, Krieger did not consider such a time when responding. She replied, “Nov 11th,” the NWSL Championship’s date. Rapinoe laughed and answered that she was planning on being there, too.
“She thinks she’s so smart. I was asking when her last regular season game was to see if I could make it,” Rapinoe said. “But all the last games are the exact same time, so I couldn’t make it. But she just hit back with that real quick. So I was like, ‘okay, well, let’s let’s do that then. I guess that’s my last one, too.’”
Rapinoe and Krieger’s manifestation is now a reality, though. And Rapinoe’s wish of seeing Krieger’s final match will be fulfilled, too. However, they will be rivals on the field. The Reign and Gotham face off in the NWSL Championship at 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (PST) on Saturday. That means Rapinoe and Krieger could (and will likely) be in action against each other.
The story writes itself.
Rapinoe is a trailblazer in women’s soccer. And she has won almost every award in existence. She is the only American to receive the Balon d’Or Féminin and has won the Best FIFA Women’s Player, two World Cups, and more. Not only has Rapinoe won many awards, but she has made a difference off the pitch; she has advocated for equal pay between men and women athletes, LGBTQ rights, and more.
While Rapinoe has accomplished so much on and off the field, she has yet to achieve one feat: winning an NWSL Championship. She came close in 2014 and 2015 when she reached the championship with Seattle Reign FC (now OL Reign). However, both times, her team lost.
Krieger, like Rapinoe, has never won an NWSL Championship. In 2016, she and the Washington Spirit reached the NWSL Championship and appeared destined for victory during the final minutes of extra time. However, forward Lynn Williams (now on Gotham) equalized for the Western New York Flash in stoppage time, sending the match to penalty kicks. There, Krieger missed a penalty kick en route to the Flash lifting the trophy.
Three years, three combined NWSL Championship losses for Rapinoe and Krieger. 2023 is not like any other year for Rapinoe and Krieger, though.
In 2014 and 2015, the Rapinoe-led (Seattle) Reign (FC) teams were NWSL Shield winners. However, as she appears on the biggest stage in 2023, the Reign has led more of an underdog story. They faced elimination on Decision Day but clinched a spot in the playoffs with a decisive 3-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars, a game in which Rapinoe scored a brace.
The Reign began the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and have not looked back since. They won their first two playoff matches against Southern California teams, No. 5 seed Angel City and No. 1 seed San Diego Wave. The Reign did not allow goals in either match and enter the NWSL Championship after holding opponents scoreless in four straight games.
Like Rapinoe’s Reign, Krieger’s team, Gotham, was the ultimate Cinderella story in 2023. The team finished last in the NWSL in 2022. But after making the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in 2023, they eliminated the No. 3 seed, North Carolina Courage, and the No. 2 seed and defending champion, the Portland Thorns.
Much of Gotham’s success is because of Krieger’s play. At 39-years-old she is playing at a high level. She is vital in the team’s back line, and her reliability has allowed her teammates to play more aggressively. One player reaping the benefits is rookie defender Jenna Nighswonger, a player Krieger is passing the torch to as she retires.
Nighswonger shined alongside Krieger in 2023 as an outside back. Her two-way talents led to her appearing in every game and scoring three goals. She also won the NWSL Rookie of the Year award.
Nighswonger credited Krieger for some of her success. She was regularly confused during training sessions early in the season. However, Krieger clarified anything she was unsure of. Nighswonger asked Krieger and the coaching staff many questions, quickly leaving an impression on Krieger.
“The questions that she would ask were really intelligent,” Krieger. “From a rookie to have that kind of understanding, to even ask certain questions not just to me, but to the coaching staff to really have a good understanding of her new position, or any position on the field, that was amazing,” Krieger said.
“I’m always confused on what’s going on in practice,” Nighswonger said. “Asking questions has always helped me a lot with learning the game. I’m new to the position, so to have someone like Ali [Krieger] playing next to me, I would be mistaken if I didn’t ask her questions any chance I got. She’s been so great. And she gives me such great advice.”
As Nighswonger carves her own path, Krieger’s legacy will remain with her. Not only will it show in her play, though. Krieger and Rapinoe’s efforts regarding pay and more opened a road for players like Nighswonger to shine, and they will continue fighting for more.
“Just an incredible legacy,” Nighswonger said. “You could talk about it for so long. She always talks about how she wants to leave the game better than she found it. And I think she’s done that tenfold. More importantly, she’s not only changed the game now, but she sets up things to where we’re going to be changing the game for years.”
Aside from Rookie of the Year, Nighswonger also made the Best XI second team. Krieger was also named to the NWSL’s Best XI (first team, though), which was voted on by players, owners, general managers, coaches, media, and fans.
On the contrary, the Reign had no players selected for the Best XI or any end-of-season awards. Some of the players believe that is because they succeeded as a collective. Others say they forgot to vote, including Rapinoe.
“I didn’t vote,” Rapinoe said. “It’s probably in my Reign email, which I literally never check. So I don’t know where that got lost. We were in survival mode, trying to get into the playoffs. We have players that deserve to be in the Best XI on our squad. We obviously made it to the championship game. We’re doing something right there.”
In retirement, Rapinoe plans on staying near women’s soccer. While her impact will be missing from the field, she plans on continuing to make a difference. She believes Angel City, who averaged close to 20,000 fans per match during their first two seasons, have set the standard for atmospheres in the NWSL. Now, Rapinoe wants to see more growth.
“Guys, you are not getting rid of me,” Rapinoe said. I’ll be around. I can’t wait for what is next. I’ve been banging this drum for 1000 years, but the investment and the capital and the ability to invest in the business of the league. We’ve seen what Angel City have done, the atmosphere that they’ve created. That leaguewide is the standard now.”
Krieger is excited for retirement to give her body a rest. While relaxing, Krieger will be busy being a mother, too; she has two children, Sloane and Ocean. But first, win or lose, she will soak in the scene after playing in likely one of the most extraordinary environments of her NWSL career; 23,000 tickets were sold as of Friday night, the NWSL’s shared via social media.
“Giving my body a rest. Sitting on the field for a little bit and just soaking it in one last time,” Krieger said. “Before I go home, I want to take time to myself to like decompress because I’m going to be mama right when I land. And so Sunday will be nice just to decompress and think about the season and think about the game no matter what happens and think about my career and where I am. And then go home with just some type of excitement stepping into this next phase.”
Rapinoe and Krieger left a lasting impact on women’s soccer and the NWSL. On Saturday, they will share the stage one final time, competing for the NWSL Championship. Many of their greatest moments came on the field as teammates for the USWNT. This time, they will do so as rivals. However, it is fitting that two noteworthy players will play one last time in the most prominent match.
As Williams put it, “you couldn’t write a better ending.”