HARRISON, N.J. -- On the night Abby Wambach made history, the goal came as it had so many times before. A laser of a corner kick. A giant moving target. A leap high above the rest. And, in the end, a snap header so sweet and true and powerful that no goalkeeper in the world could have stopped it.
No player in the history of women's soccer has made a trademark of the thundering header more than Mary Abigail Wambach, late of Rochester, N.Y., who scored her 159th international goal to break Mia Hamm's all-time record here Thursday night. In a 5-0 win over South Korea, Wambach ended up scoring four goals in the first half, taking her career total to 160. She came out of the game in the 58th minute to a standing ovation from the 18,961 at Red Bull Arena, who serenaded her with chants of "Ab-by Wam-bach!"
"I'm really happy it was a header, truth be told," said Wambach, the legendary Florida Gator who was drenched in Gatorade (aptly enough) by her teammates after the game. "Obviously, set-pieces are my favorite things, and heading the ball is something I've been proven to do pretty well."
Hamm's response to Wambach's record-breaking night was all class. "I'm just so proud of her," Hamm said in a statement released by U.S. Soccer. "Just watching those four goals, that's what she is all about. She fights for the ball, she's courageous and she never gives up. Her strength and perseverance are what make her so great, and it's what defenders and opposing teams fear."
Hamm went on: "From being her teammate early in her career, I know all she ever wanted to do was win, and she continues to do that. I'm just glad I got to share 158 with her. It was short, but it was fun."
From the opening whistle, it was clear that Wambach's U.S. teammates were trying to feed her the ball in the same way Wilt Chamberlain's teammates presumably did on the night he famously scored 100 points. "If you saw that first half, you could see how many times they were trying to find me the ball," Wambach said.
It made sense that they would try and get her the record Thursday. Wambach's family had flown in for the game in case the record fell. What's more, the U.S. doesn't play again until September, and this was a chance to make history in the New York City area against a team that was likely to concede goals. In fact, if Wambach hadn't come out, she might well have broken the U.S. single-game record of five goals held by her and five other players (Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez, Tiffeny Milbrett).
Wambach's goals came in the 10th minute (from Lauren Cheney), the 19th minute (from Cheney again), the 29th minute (the record-breaker from Megan Rapinoe) and in first-half stoppage time (on an unselfish pass from Alex Morgan).
"I'm just so proud of Abby," said Morgan afterward. "It's pure Abby fashion to be all or nothing. It would be the game that she scores four goals and just crushes Mia's record ... Her number's going to keep growing. Abby's not going anywhere."
"It's special," Wambach said, "not only because I can tell my teammates were trying to get me those goals in the first half. My family was here, it was a great crowd and a great team performance. I can't say enough about how much I look up to Mia and how amazing the record she set was. My teammates have put me in all types of positions to score goals. I'm only as good as my teammates will allow me to be."
Wambach had failed to convert on a breakaway early in the first half, and she admitted that the miss made her wonder if it wouldn't be her night. But then the goals started flowing, and you sensed the record was going to fall sooner rather than later. It was appropriate that the assist on the record-breaker came from Rapinoe, the same player who connected with Wambach so famously on the U.S.'s miraculous last-minute goal against Brazil in the World Cup 2011 quarterfinals.
There was one strange footnote to Wambach's record-breaker. After her teammates swarmed her and Wambach was given the historic ball, South Korean forward Jeoun Eun-Ha tried to rip the ball out of Wambach's hands. It was almost as if an opposing player had shoved Hank Aaron on his record-breaking home run for taking too long to circle the bases. An incredulous Wambach dealt with the situation well, at least, though the South Korean player should make a Turkeys of the Year list. It was poor sportsmanship if she was aware of the record, and if she weren't aware, she should have been.
Afterward, Wambach said it was no big deal. And while she was going to celebrate with her teammates and family Thursday night, there's more in this sport that Wambach still wants to do.
"My legacy is something I do care about," she said, "and something that has eluded me is that World Cup championship."
She will have one more chance at World Cup 2015 in Canada—and if you think this night in New Jersey was special, that night in Vancouver two years from now would be an even bigger occasion for the greatest goal-scorer in the history of women's soccer.