What's next for Megan Rapinoe and the older USWNT players?
LYON, France -- Among the waves that Megan Rapinoe's words generated during this World Cup, one of her first answers created barely a ripple at the time.
As the U.S. team held its training camp in the days before its opener against Thailand, Rapinoe -- before she became the lead character in the entire tournament -- listened to an English reporter ask her whether this World Cup had special meaning because, he noted, it would surely be her last.
She started to answer, spooling out some boilerplate about taking things as they come. But she doesn't do boilerplate well. She paused, smirked and couldn't go through with it.
"I don't feel like I'm that old," Rapinoe instead countered.
She didn't look old Sunday, even as she became the first woman to start three consecutive World Cup finals. She didn't look past her prime converting the penalty kick that put the U.S. ahead to stay in a 2-0 win against the Netherlands and earned her the Golden Boot. She didn't look over-the-hill basking in the adulation of tens of thousands of fans after the final whistle or having a quick chat with French President Emmanuel Macron in the receiving line for medals.
"I'm made for this," Rapinoe said afterward, beaming.
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In those moments, 2023 didn't look so far away.
What the Golden Ball winner showed in those moments was much of what allowed this team to win the World Cup. The oldest team in the tournament, the U.S. didn't exactly rebuild following the Olympic disappointment of 2016. It retooled, revitalized and reconfigured. Mixing old and young in a way so that the team didn't look either one, it figured out how to occupy a moment in time.
"We still want to sit outside and hang out at night and have a chat and banter and spend time together," Kelley O'Hara said on the eve of the final. "It's very refreshing to be a part of a group that, what we show on the field -- having each other's backs, taking care of each other, doing whatever we need to win for each other -- is really felt off the field, as well."
The challenge moving forward for the U.S. is, how long can anyone or any team pause time like that? How long will some of these players, and perhaps their coach, even want to try?
With the 2020 Olympics right around the corner, it would be at least a mild surprise if the weekend marks the final major tournament for many of the front-line American players. No team has yet won the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years. That's a prize of its own, and all the more because so many of these Americans felt the sting of falling short in 2016.
Carli Lloyd has long talked about this cycle, 2019 and 2020, as the final chapter in her story. But in the days before the final, she said she feels like she is in her prime -- both in her skills and her fitness. She said she would keep going as long as she woke up every morning and wanted to put in the work.
After coming off the bench in the final, her regular role in a tournament in which she started just once, she sounded less certain.
"It's been a really tough couple of years," Lloyd said after the final. "It's not based on my ability. And for whatever reasons, coaches make the decision. I tried to put up a good case. So I'm going to go home, I'm going to kind of let the emotions die down a little bit, speak to my husband and we'll go from there."
It was just four years after she stood atop the soccer world at the end of a World Cup. She was days away from turning 33 years old then. Rapinoe turned 34 last Friday, the same age as Becky Sauerbrunn, who celebrated her birthday as the tournament got underway in June.
Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn, the defender who spoke Sunday about how difficult this cycle was, remain among the best in the world at what they do. It would be a surprise if either walked away before the Olympics. But four years is a long time when you already have two World Cup medals and your body starts to remind you more and more often of the price paid to get them.
All now 30 or older, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Alyssa Naeher, O'Hara and Christen Press enter their own limbo after strong World Cups. Lloyd and Rapinoe certainly showed in 2015 and 2019, respectively, what is possible. Lauren Holiday, who retired in 2015 before her 30th birthday, showed not everyone chooses that route.
There was a lot of talk in 2015 about winning a championship for the veterans, most particularly Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone. Perhaps because the players who became veterans on this team all won titles four years ago, that wasn't a topic this time around.
This team was instead centered in the present. First, surviving the buildup to this World Cup, when it was an open and sometimes ruthless competition for roster spots after 2016. And second, trying to merge old and new talent together for this run in France, while traveling a far more difficult path than four years earlier.
Perhaps that leaves the U.S. in better shape to move forward. Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Mallory Pugh are part of the new generation playing with Lloyd, Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn. Together, they are ready for more power.
"It's always been about what is this team at its core?" O'Hara said. "And that's been a team that has that grittiness, that bite and that never-say-die attitude. I think that's something that we had to continue to make sure that we were embodying and almost passing on -- instilling in the players that were new and the younger players that were coming in. Because it's something that the older players instilled in me when I got on this team. For me, it was something that was very important and is still very important to make sure that's something this team always embodies."
Odds are the U.S. will choose to run it back, to borrow a basketball phrase, at the 2020 Olympics. Maybe an Emily Fox, Hailie Mace or Andi Sullivan will slip into the mix as a further bridge to the future. But with Olympic rosters capped at 18 players, and assuming Jill Ellis returns with a new contract, there is every chance the team will look more similar than 2016 did in comparison to 2015.
They may be able to stretch the moment in time that long. They've earned the right to try, if they want. Beyond that? Well, four years changes a lot.
Which is why it's all the more impressive that the final outcome for the U.S., despite all the changes from the previous World Cup, remained the same.
"Obviously, I'm aware I'm not 25 anymore," Rapinoe continued that June day after being asked about her inevitable exit. "Winning that last one seems so far away. And it was such a different team. It seemed like such a different squad of players. This group, we've had a difficult cycle. We've been up and down with performances and sometimes the results and not doing well coming off the 2016 Olympics.
"I feel like this group feels that motivation and that desire to go and win it. I feel like I'm now a part of this group."