When the final whistle blows on Saturday night at Snapdragon Stadium, either the OL Reign or Gotham FC will have won their first-ever NWSL Championship. Eleven seasons ago, Megan Rapinoe joined a struggling Seattle Reign team and helped her teammates buy into head coach Laura Harvey's vision.
"Results-wise, we were in a bad place,"in September. "[Rapinoe] walked through the door and just gave everybody a lift because we knew we weren't far away. And she gave us the light to go, 'We're really close now.' And it was literally overnight. We drew the next game, we won the one after that, and then we went on a little roll, and ... she was the catalyst of that."
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To say that a win for the now OL Reign alongside Harvey – and her fellow original Reign teammates Lauren "Lu" Barnes and Jess Fishlock – on Saturday would be the perfect storybook ending feels like an understatement. Many Reign players have admitted this has added extra motivation to their playoff run.
"Jess, Lu, Laura, they've been the backbone of this club and have made this club into what it is," OL Reign and U.S. women's national team player Rose Lavelle told the media after Sunday's win against San Diego. "So, I think it's really special to get to this moment and be on this stage. Obviously, the job is not done, and we have a big week ahead of us preparing for that."
But is a championship what Rapinoe and company deserve? Lavelle believes they do.
"To kind of, like, get over this hurdle of the semifinals and get into the finals is really exciting, and I think it's what they deserve," Lavelle said last week.
As Rapinoe and the Reign worked their way through the playoffs, Ali Krieger and Gotham FC also earned a trip to the 2023 NWSL Final. Like Rapinoe, Krieger has announced her soccer career will also end at the conclusion of the season. And just like the Reign, Gotham (formerly Sky Blue FC) have yet to win an NWSL championship.
"It seems a bit poetic that the championship game is ending with Krieger and Pinoe's last game," Lavelle said.
Does Ali Krieger deserve a title before her retirement? It depends on who you ask. However, perhaps the bigger question is, are we getting the matchup that women's soccer deserves?
If we do deserve it, we have players liketo thank.
"I deserve this"
If the sight of someone proclaiming either Rapinoe or Krieger "deserves" to win the 2023 NWSL Championship conjures the voice of an intoxicated Megan Rapinoe, "I deserve this!" ringing in your ears, you are not alone. In July 2019, former USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris captured a video of Rapinoe repeating, "I deserve this!" while live streaming the World Cup title parade celebration in New York City.
During a trip to Seattle last month, Rapinoe explained the dual meaning behind her spiritous statement.
The first may seem obvious, "We were just f---ing around. Like 9 a.m., and we're already on the champagne," Rapinoe laughed as we sat inside the OL Reign training facility.
The other meaning speaks to the greater impact Rapinoe, Krieger, and the 2019 Women's World Cup-winning team had on women in sport and society.
"I think we all just really stepped into our power, and I think that 'I deserve this' is like, I deserve to be treated with respect." What transpired after the 2019 World Cup win was a movement to make things better -- t o be fairly compensated for the same work as the men's national team and better results. To be believed when voicing concerns about abuse perpetuated by NWSL coaches and ownership. To receive more investment and a viable growth strategy for the NWSL.
"I think it was, you know, kind of carving out that space of like, we deserve to have space. We deserve to have our own space to be our full selves on and off the pitch in so many different kinds of ways," she said.
Want more coverage of women's soccer? Listen below and make sure to watch Attacking Third on Golazo Network Monday, Wednesday and Friday for all your USWNT, NWSL and WSL women's soccer coverage.
Deserved or earned?
And, despite a select camp of the internet tossing her words back into her face after she badly missed a penalty in a shootout at the 2023 Women's World Cup – her last – Rapinoe appears unfazed by the criticism.
"I mean, all you can do is prepare and do your best. I feel like that about missing a penalty. That means I'm there in the game. What was it, the round of 16 in this last World Cup in a shootout? That means I'm there. I'm in the game. I'm in the World Cup ... If that's the worst thing that happens, missing a penalty in a game, then I'm doing pretty good. That's how I look at it," she told Natalie Morales of CBS Mornings with a laugh during an exclusive interview before.
Whether or not the OL Reign are successful in their quest for a championship this year, this moment is what women's soccer fans will cherish. A new and first-time champion will be crowned, and two pioneers of the league will be given the chance to fully empty their tanks before retirement.
Rapinoe and the OL Reign drew 34,130 for her final regular season match at Lumen Field. The Reign defeated San Diego in front of an NWSL Playoffs-record of 32,262.
"It's hard to put into words the impact she's had on the game, both on the pitch and off the pitch. She has embodied courage and bravery in a way that I don't know many athletes have done. And it's really embraced her role with her full authentic self, which is what I hope people will take away from what her career has meant," NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman told reporters on Oct. 6.
Although the league will say goodbye to Rapinoe the player on Nov. 11, Berman acknowledges and appreciates all Rapinoe has done to bring excitement and to call for more investment in women's professional soccer.
"The thing that I appreciate so much about Megan is her willingness to lead the narrative on the importance of the professionalization of the game," Berman said on the sidelines at Lumen Field last month.
"In these moments where she has been playing her final matches on the U.S. national team and for the Reign, she's used every opportunity to use her platform to champion the message that in order for women's soccer, both internationally and domestically, to reach its highest potential, we need to prioritize and focus on the club side, the pro game."
Hours later, Berman and others stood on the pitch at Lumen Field as Rapinoe implored the entire crowd of 34,000-plus fans to join her at Reign games next season. Rapinoe's longtime Reign head coach, Harvey, hopes Rapinoe will remain involved at a high level.
"She can be uber influential for our club, within the city, getting people to want to be part of this thing. So, I would love to see her at the board level. I think that's where she would have the most influence,"in September.
Add Commissioner Berman to the list of people who agree.
"It's our hope that we keep her close in, frankly, whatever capacity she wants to be involved in. She's earned the right to play a role in the future of women's soccer and certainly professional soccer," Berman said.
In other words, the NWSL would welcome Rapinoe back with open arms because it's what she deserves.