SEATTLE — For anyone who’s ever been associated with the U.S. national soccer teams, Wednesday will stand forever as one of the biggest days in the sport’s history in this country.

After decades of fighting on the field, in courtrooms, in boardrooms, and across the media, the players of the American women’s team finally achieved a collective bargaining agreement that grants truly equal pay with men.

The news produced a torrent of celebrations that swept all the way to the White House, where President Biden saluted the agreement on Twitter. But nowhere were the emotions stronger than among the players who fought for this era-defining triumph.

When it comes to the leaders of that fight, even the most casual followers know Megan Rapinoe’s name. From her brightly colored hair to her World Cup-winning goals to her clashes with Donald Trump, the veteran winger has been at the forefront of the charge for years. Now, at last, she and her teammates can celebrate — and also let out their relief.

“It’s just a little bit surreal, but I think it’s a huge step forward,” Rapinoe told The Inquirer. “I feel like this is the dawn of a new era, hopefully.”

» READ MORE: U.S. Soccer agrees on historic equal pay CBAs with women’s and men’s national teams

Rapinoe, 36, saluted her colleagues who put in the hard work at the bargaining table. And she admitted that “a lot of us older players, I know myself personally, took a step back” from that table this time.

There were still some veterans, such as current captain Becky Sauerbrunn. But a new generation of leaders emerged alongside them.

‘A big source of pride’

It’s never a given that new players — or new members of any labor union — will be as active as their predecessors. But Rapinoe said that next era of stars is very much on board, and called that “very rewarding.”

She specifically praised Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, and Midge Purce — the last of whom has twice joined Rapinoe for White House events on gender pay gaps.

“Having that engagement, not just from this CBA, but just, whether it’s politically or social issues off the field, it all affects us,” she said. “I love it. I feel like they’re like my little kids — really, they’re not that young — but it’s, yeah, a big source of pride for us older players.”

» READ MORE: U.S. women’s soccer stars win $24 million settlement of equal pay lawsuit

It’s also a big source of pride that the men’s national team players’ union worked together with the women, and made some sacrifices necessary to achieve a truly equal pay setup.

But in truth, the new men’s team CBA — the first formal deal for the men’s union in 3½ years — got those players long-overdue raises, too. The match fees and bonuses are among the highest for any national team on the planet.

On this point, Rapinoe was glad to vouch for the men’s team.

“Obviously, it helps us, but I’ve been saying for a long time: If they’re skirting us on money like this, they’re probably skirting y’all [the men] on the money like that too, in some way or another,” she said. “We’re the labor force in this negotiation — we’re this shared labor force. And I think insofar as we were split, or had different rifts, or whatever, or were not supporting each other, it only works to hurt both of us.”

Now there is a broad pathway for everyone to work together. The United States’ hosting of the 2026 men’s World Cup and 2028 Olympics presents a huge opportunity, and there’s likely to also be a women’s World Cup in 2027 or 2031.

“Both teams, I think, can do so much and have done so much to grow the game,” Rapinoe said. “If we can do this together, like, come on, that’s just a no-brainer — I’ve always felt like that. So to have their support on this, to be able to come together with them on this, is huge.”

» READ MORE: U.S. men’s soccer team to play England, Iran, and Wales, Scotland or Ukraine at World Cup in Qatar

Returning to the field

At the end of a long day, Rapinoe took her customary courtside seat at a Seattle Storm game to watch her fiancee, Sue Bird, star for the home team. During a timeout, the public address announcer saluted the U.S. women’s team’s deal. The cameras focused on Rapinoe, who plays on the other side of downtown Seattle for the NWSL’s OL Reign. The crowd erupted.

Reign fans haven’t been able to cheer for Rapinoe much lately, though, because an ankle injury sidelined her until the start of this month. National team fans haven’t gotten to cheer for her at a game since Carli Lloyd’s finale last October, thanks in part to injury and in part to manager Vlatko Andonovski calling in a raft of big-time young prospects instead.

But now Rapinoe is returning to fitness, including a 23-minute run for the Reign against the rival Portland Thorns last Friday. The Reign host Washington on Sunday, a game in which Rapinoe could face one of her heirs apparent in Trinity Rodman.

The national team has two friendlies against Colombia late next month that will be the warmup games for July’s Concacaf W Championship — a tournament that serves as qualifying for next year’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. The time seems right for Andonovski to finally bring back the veterans he has left out in recent months.

If Rapinoe can get back in good form with the Reign, could she return to the national team this summer?

“I hope so — yeah, definitely,” she said “Feeling good physically, so just looking forward to building those minutes in the NWSL. Obviously we have a big game Sunday, Washington coming to town, so definitely looking forward to getting out and playing more minutes and building from there.”

» READ MORE: Meet the Bucks County teen who played for Jamaica’s under-17 women’s soccer team