Megan Rapinoe has swagger. If you’d never seen her touch a soccer ball before Sunday’s World Cup final, then you knew it in the 61st minute of the match against the Netherlands.
The stakes don’t get much higher than they did in that moment. Rapinoe, co-captain of the U.S. team, was called upon to take a penalty kick in a then-scoreless match. She was steely as she approached the ball spotted 35 feet from the goal. An oh-so-subtle feint sent Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal off in one direction, while the American swept the ball in the other. Her goal gave the U.S. team a lead it would not relinquish and, eventually, its fourth World Cup title.
The U.S. were the defending champions and favorites entering the tournament, but the team’s appearance in the final was hardly assured. Close matches in the elimination round, particularly against France and England, could’ve gone either way. Watching from afar, as many people did in the United States while gathered in bars and restaurants and living rooms, it was hard not get swept up in the euphoria of the team’s success and, finally, its celebration — players making snow angels in the confetti on the field in Lyon, France, dancing in their locker room and spraying Champagne over pretty much everything in sight.
It was a great moment for women’s soccer and for Rapinoe, whose penalty kick delivered her sixth goal of the tournament and earned her the "Golden Boot" as the top scorer. She was also named the tournament’s best player.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis later commented to reporters that the 34-year-old Californian was “built for this, built for these moments. … The bigger the spotlight, the more she shines. Sometimes spotlights can burn people, but for Megan it just highlights who she is.”
Would that the spotlight continues to burn not just for Rapinoe but for all of women’s sports.
It’s hard to escape the contrast between the waves of enthusiasm for the U.S. women’s team — jersey sales reportedly set a single-season record for Nike — and the far more tepid following for the National Women’s Soccer League, the stomping ground of many of the same players when they’re not competing for the World Cup. The Boston Breakers, a founding member of the league back in 2000, closed down before last year’s season started. How inconceivable that this sports-hungry region couldn’t even muster enough of a niche following to keep the Breakers on the field.
Boston, regrettably, wasn’t alone. Kansas City lost its professional women’s team too.
There’s hope for the remaining nine teams of the women's professional league, especially as the euphoria over the national team's success spreads. ESPN has announced plans to show 14 games from the league this year. Just this weekend Budweiser announced it had signed on as a league sponsor. Terms weren’t disclosed but it was enough of a commitment to brand the company’s name on the league’s MVP trophy and its playoffs.
Surely this exposure and cash will translate into better paychecks for the league’s players, who this season will make between $16,538 and $46,200.
For all of their glory and success on the pitch, Rapinoe and her teammates have been outspoken off it — particularly around the issue of pay equity. Team members filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over gender discrimination, in light of base salaries that are less than three-quarters of what members of the men’s national team are paid. The disparity in bonuses given players widen the gap even further. Rapinoe and her teammates certainly bolstered their case for pay equality by winning in France; their counterparts on the men’s national team didn't even qualify for last year’s World Cup.
But pay — for professional soccer players as well as members of U.S. national teams — is assured by successful marketing and the game’s ability to draw lots and lots of spectators. Hopefully passion for women’s soccer that swelled through the U.S. on Sunday will be sustained, even if folks in our region now have to travel 250 miles, to Rutgers University, to see a National Women’s Soccer League match.
If so, Rapinoe’s goal in the 61st minute of the Sunday's final will have even broader implications than streams of confetti, rivers of Champagne and a World Cup trophy.