Welcome to Extra Time |

By Sean Gregory
Senior Sports Correspondent

Welcome to “Extra Time,” TIME’s new twice-weekly newsletter for all things World Cup. For the next six weeks, we’ll be providing you with analysis of the U.S. team’s quest to become the first-ever three-peat champion in women’s or men’s World Cup history; conversations on the teams, players, and controversies sure to be grabbing the globe’s attention; and a helpful guide to what's shaping up to be the most-watched women’s sporting event ever. We hope to be silly, serious, and all things in between. Spread the word to friends and family, even those who don't normally follow soccer. They can sign up here.

A quick word about me: I’m TIME’s senior sports correspondent and have written dozens of cover stories and probably thousands of other articles on athletes over the past two decades. I’ve been closely covering the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT), on and off the field, the whole way through: at Olympics, during their World Cup runs, and in courtrooms. I authored our 2019 TIME Athlete of the Year piece on the team that won the World Cup in France, and the equal-pay movement the players helped galvanize.

For years—especially since the landmark 1999 World Cup victory—Americans were out front in their passion for women’s soccer. Now, the rest of the globe is catching up when it comes to investment and fandom in the women’s game. This year’s World Cup promises to be the most competitive ever.

So I’d love to hear from you. Please reach out to sean.gregory@time.com, with any questions, comments, complaints, or story ideas you’d like us to explore in Extra Time. I’m also on Twitter at @seanmgregory. The World Cup kicks off July 20, with co-host New Zealand taking on Norway at 3 a.m. E.T.

Yes, 3 a.m. The World Cup is unfolding in New Zealand and Australia, in often unfriendly time zones for fans in the United States. Extra Time will be your bleary-eyed observer, staying up at odd hours to fill you in on what you missed while you were resting. If you’ll be watching at some watering hole—that might just be bending local regulations to showcase games—do hit me up. I’d love to join you.

Last call at 2 a.m. for a 3 a.m. kickoff? Nice try.

Without further ado, your inaugural edition of Extra Time …

Rapinoe announces retirement

Let’s start with the major news. Megan Rapinoe announced on Saturday that she will retire at the end of her 2023 National Women’s Soccer League season (she plays for the OL Reign in Seattle). TIME released its latest cover story, featuring Rapinoe, this morning. The cover line is “The Champion,” which speaks to both Rapinoe’s accomplishments on the field—she’s an Olympic gold medalist, a two-time World Cup champion, and the reigning Golden Ball winner as the best player at the 2019 World Cup—and her advocacy away from the pitch, for causes like pay equity and LBGTQ+ rights.

I spoke to Rapinoe for three hours in Seattle this spring, and the cover profile details her journey, influence, and legacy.

Rapinoe, 38, will have a different role at her last World Cup. She won’t be a starter and primary goal scorer. She’s no longer a team captain: Alex Morgan and midfielder Lindsey Horan will fill that position. Legendary athletes tend to struggle with this new type of reality at the tail end of their careers. Even if they’re past their prime, they are prone to viewing reduced playing time as an affront, which makes sense. Healthy egos made them superstars in the first place. Those egos are ripe for bruising.

The USWNT has recent experience with this. In 2015 Abby Wambach, America’s all-time leading international goal scorer, was no longer a World Cup starter. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do professionally as an athlete,” Wambach told me a few weeks ago. She was 35 in 2015. “You know, I would love to sit here and say, I sat on that bench and I cheered my teammates on because I'm a good teammate. Yes, that’s true. But the other thing that’s really true is I knew that the only way we were going to be able to win that tournament is if I sat on the bench and cheered on my team.” Wambach had never won a World Cup; with the team’s victory in Canada eight years ago, she had her title. “So even though it's going to be hard, it's possible that Megan can do it," Wambach says. "I'm living proof.”

Four years ago, however, Carli Lloyd declined to quietly play a support role. Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan and won FIFA World Player of the Year the following January, was convinced she was still in top form. “No. I’m not,” she said when asked if she was comfortable in her backup role. "I’m not here to be a ‘super sub,’ plain and simple. That’s not the type of person I am.”

To prove her point, at the 2019 World Cup Lloyd did score two first-half goals in a 3-0 group-stage victory over Chile (USWNT Coach Jill Ellis rested a slew of starters that game). “Like I said before–I’m not just making any of this up–this is the best version of me that I’ve ever been playing in my career,” Lloyd said after that game. A few months later, she didn’t sugarcoat her feelings about her diminished status on a World Cup-winning team. “It was absolutely the worst time of my life,” she said on a podcast.

Lloyd will be working for Fox Sports at this World Cup. She doesn’t believe her situation in 2019 is comparable to Rapinoe’s in 2023. “Megan is grateful that she’s still there,” Lloyd told me at a press event in New York City last month. “If that were me, I probably would be cut. She knows that she can't play how she played in 2019. For myself, my form didn’t dip.”

(I’m sort of pumped to hear Lloyd on TV. She’s unlikely to hold her tongue, on any topic.)

Rapinoe sat out yesterday’s sendoff game against Wales; both she and midfielder Rose Lavelle are nursing injuries. (The U.S. won 2-0; Trinity Rodman, 21, scored both goals, serving further notice that a new generation is prepared to make its mark.) She’s saying all the right things. “If we're up 2-0 in the last 15 minutes, it's probably not going to be me coming off the bench,” Rapinoe says. “I hear if we're tied or we're lacking a little creativity or we're chasing a game, I think that's more my role.” She says she’s looking forward to mentoring the younger players. “I want our team to feel confident and be swaggy and be exactly who we are,” she says. “I want people to shine. I want our environment to be good. I think that's most important to me.”

I’d be shocked if Rapinoe caused any sort of disruption due to lack of action. Like Lloyd, Rapinoe has always been a straight shooter. If she were really ticked about coach Vlatko Andonovski’s plans for her, she would have vocalized them by now. Being on the sidelines in Canada was difficult for Wambach, because she had never won a World Cup during her scoring days. But Wambach has no regrets: she accepted the tough circumstances, and ultimately relished the win.

Rapinoe, on the other hand, had her dominant showing in a winning World Cup four years ago. She’s tasted that individual success. So she should have an easier time seeing someone else star.

(Like Rodman. We’ll have more on her soon.)

Extras from my Rapinoe interview

Rapinoe is always a lively interview. A few bits from our conversation in Seattle that didn’t make it into the cover story.

On growing up playing for a somewhat ragtag travel team in Sacramento with her twin sister, Rachael …

“That’s one of the best things that could have ever happened. I got my ass kicked all the time. We would maybe squeak out a win now and again. Those moments kind of taught you how to play under pressure and not get rattled by it.”

Helpful words for parents who are worried that their youngster doesn’t yet play on the “elite” youth club teams that crush everyone all the time. If there was hope for the Rapinoes, there’s hope for you.

On equal-pay negotiations with U.S. Soccer …

Rapinoe and her teammates shared many low moments together while bargaining with U.S. Soccer for fair working conditions and pay. The frustrations finally paid off when the team signed a historic collective bargaining agreement last year that, among other things, guaranteed the women FIFA World Cup prize money split equally with the men’s players. The victory was a long time coming and made Rapinoe reflective about those struggles.

She gave Becca Roux, the executive director of the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, permission to share with me a photo that Rapinoe took in 2017. Rapinoe sent it to a group chat during a break in a tense bargaining session, in Dallas. Rapinoe pointed her phone to four empty chairs, in a conference room, where U.S. Soccer reps had been sitting. In the foreground of the shot, clearly directed at the invisible soccer bureaucrats: her middle finger.

On the future of women’s sports …

"The ROI on women's sports is crazy. First of all, we already know how to be successful with nothing. We barely had anything. We’ve come up out the mud. And we're like a field of wildflowers growing out of cement. That's how I look at us. It's incredible. Against literally all odds. It's not like we've just been ignored. We've purposely had cement poured over the top of us. It's not just that we've been starved. We’ve been strangled as well. And look at us now. The women’s World Cup is going to be bonkers. Again.”

Read the full interview here. 

For your calendar .. the USWNT game schedule (all times E.T.)

Friday, July 21, vs. Vietnam, 9 p.m., in Auckland, New Zealand

Wednesday, July 26, vs. The Netherlands, 9 p.m., in Wellington, New Zealand

Tuesday, August 1, vs. Portugal, 3 a.m., in Auckland, New Zealand

If the U.S. wins Group E, as expected, the knockout stage schedule would be:

Round of 16: Saturday, August 5, 10 p.m., in Sydney, Australia

Quarterfinals: Thursday, August 10, 9 p.m., in Wellington, New Zealand

Semifinals: Tuesday, August 15, 4 a.m., in Auckland, New Zealand

Third Place (if the USWNT loses in semifinals): Saturday, August 19, 4 a.m., in Brisbane, Australia

Final: Sunday, August 20, 6 a.m., in Sydney, Australia

If the U.S. finishes second in Group E, the team still advances to the knockout stage. The schedule would be:

Round of 16: Sunday, August 6, 5 a.m., in Melbourne, Australia

Quarterfinals: Friday, August 11, 3:30 a.m., in Auckland, New Zealand

Semifinals: Tuesday, August 15, 4 a.m. in Auckland, New Zealand

Third Place (if the USWNT loses semifinals): Saturday, August 19, 4 a.m., in Brisbane, Australia

Final: Sunday, August 20, 6 a.m., Sydney, Australia

Recommended reading

Here’s some of TIME’s World Cup coverage to date:

Some other World Cup stories from around the web:

  • ACL injuries mar the World Cup (WSJ)
  • The Guardian is running handy guides to each of the 32 World Cup teams. Curious about China’s entry?
  • Meanwhile, Yahoo Sports can also get you up to speed on the competition, with its international power rankings. (Guess who’s No. 1?)

Parting thought

Last week I hopped on a call with FIFA leadership about refereeing at the 2023 World Cup. One of the exciting new initiatives: for the first time at a World Cup, refs will actually explain, on a microphone, in full sentences for the world to hear, the rationale behind video assistant referee decisions. Kind of like American football refs have been doing for decades. This seems like a common-sense, fan-friendly reform that could have been implemented ages ago. Microphones and talking are not exactly new technologies.

Modern soccer’s been around since the 19th century. Change comes slowly. This is progress, people!

See you later this week.