Gotham takes NWSL title after Reign star Megan Rapinoe’s farewell is cut short

SAN DIEGO — Megan Rapinoe’s remarkable soccer career ended abruptly and cruelly Saturday, less than three minutes into the NWSL championship game.

On the final day of a journey splashed with World Cup titles and global acclaim for leading political and human rights causes, the 38-year-old winger for Seattle’s OL Reign was changing direction to pursue Gotham FC’s Maitane López when she crumbled to the ground with what she said after the 2-1 defeat was almost certainly a torn Achilles’ tendon.

As Rapinoe reached for her right ankle, her facial expression was a mix of disbelief and sadness. Before the medical staff reached her, it was clear Rapinoe’s night — and her 15-year pro career — was over.

Wearing a walking boot after the match, Rapinoe said she felt a “huge pop” and she couldn’t feel her Achilles’ tendon. She will have an MRI exam soon.

“The worst possible outcome,” she said. “Thank God I have a sense of humor. Just obviously devastating.”

She pulled her blue jersey over her face. After being helped up, Rapinoe was embraced by Gotham’s Ali Krieger, one of her best friends who also announced earlier this year that she would retire this fall.

With her fiancée, retired basketball star Sue Bird, looking on, Rapinoe threw her arms over the shoulders of team personnel and gingerly returned to the bench.

“For that to happen so early in the game was obviously devastating for her and for us,” Reign Coach Laura Harvey said. “It’s not obviously the fairy-tale ending we wanted for her.”

The outcome was a bittersweet crowning moment for Krieger, the captain and Northern Virginia native who hoisted the NWSL trophy for the first time. It capped a worst-to-first turnaround for Gotham, which won four of 22 games last year.

“I don’t think I could dream of a better ending for myself,” Krieger said. “I just want to run off into the sunset and enjoy this with my family, my friends and my kids most importantly, and my teammates.”

Krieger tried squaring her emotions after watching Rapinoe, her teammate on the 2015 and 2019 World Cup championships, get hurt.

“I’m so gutted for her,” Krieger said.

Rapinoe’s injury threatened to overshadow the match, played before an announced 25,011 at Snapdragon Stadium, an NWSL championship game record. But a thrilling first half — and an incredible finish — produced by two teams seeking their first title brought the attention back to the game.

In its first championship appearance, Gotham went ahead in the 24th minute. Midge Purce beat three players on the right flank before crossing to Lynn Williams for a seven-yard one-timer.

Five minutes later, OL Reign drew even when Bethany Balcer, Rapinoe’s replacement, threaded a through ball to Rose Lavelle for a breakaway and a cool finish into the near side of the net.

In the 38th minute, Purce hit the near post with a header and Yazmeen Ryan pounded the rebound off the crossbar from equally close range.

Gotham was clinical in stoppage time as Purce’s corner kick met Esther González, a member of Spain’s World Cup-winning squad, for an eight-yard header into the left side.

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Lavelle’s crafty work set up Veronica Latsko for a breakaway, but Mandy Haught made the save.

With Krieger anchoring the resistance, Gotham yielded few other quality opportunities. In the fifth of six minutes of stoppage time, however, Haught reached outside the penalty area to punch the ball from danger. Play continued, but video replay showed the infraction.

Haught received a red card, and defender Nealy Martin took her place and, with assistance, pulled on an oversize goalkeeper jersey.

As she left the field, Haught apologized to her teammates.

Purce said she told her: “Honey, you just saved us! Are you kidding me? [OL Reign’s Elysse Bennett] was one on one with the goal.”

Martin was not tested; Lavelle’s free kick from 19 yards smashed into the defensive wall. Moments later, the final whistle blew.

Purce, a Silver Spring native who played at Good Counsel High, was voted championship game MVP.

Asked about Krieger, Purce said, “When everyone says ‘legend,’ when they say ‘hero,’ when they talk about how great she is on and off the field, those are really fun narratives to say when someone’s retiring because it sounds good in press clippings. But to be able to experience it and put my credibility behind that, she is absolutely remarkable and it’s been an honor to play with her.”

With a broadcast deal that includes ESPN and Prime Video, NWSL’s reach grows

The final culminated a bright 11th season for the NWSL. Attendance grew 26 percent to an average of 10,869, led by the San Diego Wave’s 20,718. Five games drew 25,000, with a league-record 34,130 for Rapinoe’s regular season home farewell in Seattle. By contrast, the WNBA, which enjoys far greater TV exposure and media coverage, averaged 6,615 fans last season.

It’s not all rosy at the NWSL box office. While new teams in San Diego and Los Angeles have been immediate hits and soccer-rich Portland continues to attract big crowds, the league has struggled in Chicago, Orlando and Houston, among other places.

Viewership on the CBS-owned Paramount Plus streaming service increased by 83 percent, according to Commissioner Jessica Berman. And on Thursday, Berman announced the league had entered into a four-year deal, valued at a reported $240 million, with CBS Sports, ESPN, Prime Video and Scripps Sports to carry more than 100 matches per season. The previous deal had reaped $1.5 million annually from CBS.

The return of the Utah Royals and expansion into Northern California with Bay FC will increase the number of teams to 14 in 2014. Boston is next, in 2026, and Berman said “more than a dozen qualified investor groups” have expressed interest in the No. 16 slot.

But the NWSL will face greater competition for players. Increased investment in women’s soccer in Europe could begin to attract more players from the NWSL. And starting next fall, a new U.S. circuit is slated to start with eight teams: the USL Super League, operated by the organization that runs second- and third-division men’s pro leagues.

“We know this is a moment not to be complacent,” Berman said. “It’s a moment to invest for the future. It’s a moment we don’t take for granted. We believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to grow this league. . . . Our aspiration is to be the best league in the world, and we’re prepared to make the decisions and investments that are necessary to make that a reality.”

The NWSL can certainly boast balanced competition. This year’s final featured No. 4 (OL Reign) vs. No. 6 (Gotham), and Gotham became the fourth different team in four postseasons to win the title.

And while Rapinoe will depart without a championship — and with months of rehabilitation ahead — Krieger will savor her best moment in a growing league.

“It’s just rewarding to have people who care, who want to support us, who want to put money into us and want to invest,” she said. “This is the result. And our product is excellent. It’s actually elite. We’re elite footballers, and we deserve this. And year after year, it’s only going to get better.”

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