Updated: Jan 1, 2020
I am a huge fan of Megan Rapinoe. Over the course of her career, she has been one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the game. Pinpoint crosses, aggressive playmaking, thumping shots and delicate tap-ins, and maybe the best throw-in mojo in the world. I’ve been lucky enough to see her in person a good fifteen or twenty times, and it’s always a joy.
She’s also one of the most important voices in the game today. She takes stands for important causes, wears Audre Lorde’s name on the back of her shirt, and always provides honest and insightful comments on demand. She’s a superstar, and we’re lucky to have her.
But she wasn’t the best player in the world in 2019, and it’s not a close call.
It’s not surprising that she’s taken home all the major awards, of course. She won the Golden Boot at the World Cup, and therefore also won the Golden Ball. And awards-voting being what it is, there was never going to be anyone else at the top of these lists.
But we shouldn’t let ourselves be resigned to this fact. Awards don’t matter that much, but we all still do care about them—from fans to media to players themselves. They are signals of respect, honors for special performances. They should go to the players who earned them. And it’s beyond the realm of plausibility to argue that Rapinoe’s performances on the pitch earned these awards.
Rapinoe’s year was iconic, not great
Over the course of 2019, Rapinoe played 1075 minutes for the United States and 333 minutes for her NWSL club, Reign FC. She scored nine goals and recorded seven assists for the US, and added nothing to either of those numbers in the NWSL. A forward who contributes nine goals over a calendar year maybe be a useful player, but is nowhere close to the elites of the world. Just by way of comparison, Sam Kerr notched 43 goals in 2019, while Vivianne Miedema is closing in on 50.
To even put Rapinoe in the conversation for best in the world, you would have to decide that club performance is basically irrelevant, and would have to massively downgrade international performances outside of the World Cup.
But even narrowing the focus to that extent still doesn’t actually work. Yes, Rapinoe won the big awards in France, but was she actually the best player in the tournament? No. And she really wasn’t even close. She scored six goals, which is obviously a lot, but also isn’t an especially noteworthy total for the Golden Boot winner. And consider the nature of the goals. One came at the tail end of the Americans’ 13-0 drubbing of Thailand—a game in which Rapinoe looked rusty at best. Three more came from penalties. Penalties count as much as any other goal, of course, but the worst penalty takers in the world will still convert about half their chances. There’s value in being the person with the nerves to stand there and do the job, but it’s hard to believe that one of the many other world class Americans couldn’t have done the same.
Her final two goals both came in the quarterfinal matchup against France. One was a strange free kick that somehow failed to be blocked by three different French players. It was a bit of a freak result, though Rapinoe absolutely deserves credit for taking the shot and giving herself the chance to find the opening. The other came from open play—a nice reminder of what a fantastic player Rapinoe is when she’s at her best.
That France game was a genuinely excellent performance, and is certainly the crown jewel of her case. In arguably the biggest game of the year, she played well and delivered the decisive goals.
But one game is just one game, no matter how important. And outside of that match, she was average at best. Against Sweden, Rapinoe looked lost, regularly giving the ball away, and struggling mightily to create anything. Against Spain in the octofinals—probably the closest the US ever came to losing—the American attack was pathetic. They managed a measly two shots on goal, and created virtually nothing from open play. A large part of that is because Spain deliberately shunted the US attack out left, giving Rapinoe chance after chance to create something. She never did.
Rapinoe then missed the semifinal to injury, and the difference was notable. In the same role, Christen Press not only scored a brilliant goal, but also contributed significant defensive work—something the US had been missing from the hobbled Rapinoe. And when she came back for the final, the injury that had left her out of the previous match remained notable. She once again scored a penalty, but looked well off the pace of play.
The final tally: one great game, a couple average ones, and a couple stinkers. She did provide critical nerve in converting some big penalties, and was an important leader on the best team in the world. That’s not nothing. I didn’t include her on my Best or Second XIs for the tournament, but I understand why many reasonable people might disagree.
But those five games are the entirety of her case. Outside of France, she contributed virtually nothing over the rest of the year. And if you’re going to reward someone for a transcendent performance on the biggest stage, it better be truly transcendent. This wasn’t, by any stretch.
We should absolutely celebrate the iconic nature of Rapinoe’s World Cup. We’ll look back at this decades from now and remember her standing, arms outstretched. We’ll remember her drawing the ire of the president. We’ll remember the way it changed our collective conversations about the sport. That all matters. But it has nothing to do with whether she was the best player.
Picking the right players for awards is hard, but it’s important to try
Again, I want to reiterate how much I appreciate Megan Rapinoe. She is one of my favorite players of all-time, and I have been thrilled to see her resurgence in 2017 and 2018. She was famously taken to the Olympics in 2016 while still recovering from an ACL injury, only to be subbed on and back off in a horrible half-hour of the US quarterfinal exit to Sweden. At that point, it looked like her time as a key contributor for the US might be coming to an end. But instead, she came back revitalized, shifting her style of play to become more physical and direct and actually getting better in the process. She really was one of the best players in the world over those couple of years.
So I don’t begrudge her the accolades that are raining down this year. She’s been one of the best for a long time, and there is literally no one I’d rather have as the face of global soccer in 2019.
But I care about the sport as a whole. I want people engaged in it to take their responsibility seriously. I want considered, engaged debates that reflect the accumulated knowledge of experts. I want performances to matter more than fame.
This is not an easy thing. As my friend Kieran Theivam has noted, the availability of statistics is extremely limited. Matches are hard to see. Good commentary is hard to find. I consider myself reasonably well informed about the global game, but that’s purely a relative comparison. I have been able to watch maybe three Frauen-Bundesliga games this year, a handful from France, a couple from South America, basically none from Asia. My colleague Sophie Lawson has expressed the same feelings, and if you know Sophie, you know there is almost no one in the world who watches more (and a more diverse range of) women’s soccer than her.
If it were my job to cover the global game, I could certainly watch more. But it’s not my job because that job basically doesn’t exist. There are a handful of people in the world who can actually devote their full time to covering the sport. The rest of us are either amateurs or professionals who can only devote some of their limited bandwidth to the game.
So I have no confidence in stating who I think should have won all these awards. But to my own eyes, the shortlist should be: Vivianne Miedema, Sam Kerr, Julie Ertz, Amandine Henry, Crystal Dunn. You could also make credible cases for players like Ada Hegerberg, Pernille Harder, Ewa Pajor, Kosovare Asllani, Lucy Bronze, Griedge Mbock Bathy, Caroline Graham Hansen, Debinha, and others.
You could extend out another rung and bring in dozens more truly excellent players, all of whom contributed more over the course of the year than Rapinoe. That’s not a slight to Rapinoe, just an honest reflection of what actually happened.
We are blessed with an unbelievable amount of quality in the game today. Awards season should be a chance to celebrate that talent. It should inspire a bunch of heated and engaging conversations about how to assess the relative quality of leagues, and a diverse range of performances. It shouldn’t be about anointing the most famous player simply because she’s famous.
I know we aren’t there yet, and I certainly wasn’t surprised to see Rapinoe sweep the awards. But just because something is predictable doesn’t make it good. And I don’t accept that we have to treat this as an inevitability. We should demand more. The players are delivering unprecedented excellence on the pitch. We should also demand excellence from those evaluating and analyzing them.