The end of a bizarre, irony-filled day was capped by two bizarre and ironic events. Abby Wambach did not conjure up one final, magical moment to cap her career, and her U.S. women's national team lost–snapping a 104-game home unbeaten run–to end its victory tour.
Wednesday began with Wambach calling for Jurgen Klinsmann's firing on Bill Simmons's podcast (part of her criticism of Klinsmann involved his reliance on "foreign" players; meanwhile, one of her closest U.S. teammates is Canada-born Sydney Leroux). As the plaudits for her career achievements poured in from all corners of the internet (and even the Oval Office), she implored all, in an emotional Gatorade ad, to forget her, and then proceeded to delete all of her social media accounts; Given all of her calls for equality and all of the advocacy she's done to try and protect the U.S. women from playing on turf, she ended her career on, of all places, an artificial turf surface in an American football stadium.
World Cup appearances
World Cup goals
World Cup wins
Olympic gold medals
We've become accustomed to seeing Wambach seize the moment, whether it was against Brazil in Greece (‘04) or Germany (‘11), facing Nigeria in Canada (‘15), or the countless other times she came through in big moments over the course of her career. So it was almost unexpected that she did not score in her farewell match, the USA's 1-0 loss to China in front of nearly 33,000 at the Superdome in New Orleans. That wasn't the storybook ending most expected and presumed ever since she announced her retirement less than two months ago, yet the ever-honest Wambach found a way to twist the irony into the story narrative anyway.
"I think it's pretty fitting that I played 70 minutes and we weren't able to score a goal," Wambach told Fox Sports 1 immediately after the game. "It's like 'O.K., you know what? It is time to go.'"
Goal No. 185 didn't not come for a lack of trying.
To nobody's surprise, Wambach was targeted early and often by her teammates, getting her head on three balls in the China box in the opening seven minutes. She nearly had assist No. 74 of her career in the 28th minute, setting up Carli Lloyd, only for the newly crowned U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year to hit her chance over the bar. A couple minutes later, Wambach had perhaps her best chance, cutting back on a defender and opting for a right-footed toe poke from close range.
She set up Lloyd for another great chance, one hit right at goalkeeper Zhao Lina, and was ultimately subbed off after 72 minutes, replaced by Christen Press after a lengthy, deserved standing ovation.
"I know everybody wanted to get me a goal, it's probably why we didn't score," said Wambach, who admittedly has not been training as she normally would knowing her playing days were numbered. "At the end of the day, China's happy and so am I. It's my last game. It's all right."
And now it's time to turn the page. For Wambach, on her playing career and for the U.S. women on their era of reliance on this close-knit veteran nucleus. Gone now are Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday and Lori Chaulpny. Rising up are the likes of Press, Tobin Heath, Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan, joining a stout veteran defense that was the backbone of the World Cup run.
This summer in Rio–provided the U.S. gets through qualifying–provides an opportunity for Alex Morgan to re-establish herself as the go-to forward (though her apparent hamstring injury that caused her to be subbed off after 44 minutes will be of concern heading into Olympic qualifying), and for the generation of players Wambach helped inspire to take the torch.
"These younger players have so much to look forward to ... the team is in their hands now, and I'm O.K. walking away," Wambach said.
More importantly, it's time for all to turn the page on this 10*-game victory tour, which has been shrouded with mixed results despite its intent. On the field, where the U.S. went 7-1-1 and lost its home unbeaten streak. On the training ground, where Megan Rapinoe was lost to a torn ACL. In the headlines, where the Hawaii cancelation re-launched the turf debate that dominated the women's game in the build-up to last summer's World Cup, a fight Wambach has fought so tirelessly. It was a PR nightmare that seized the momentum from the stretch of blowouts–save for two games against Brazil–that allowed the U.S. to rightfully be celebrated around the country for its World Cup accomplishment in Canada.
As Wambach, the vocal leader and dominant presence for so long, heads into the sunset, so does the USA's 2015. It was a year full of achievement. On the horizon is another challenge in 2016, one to be championed by a different squad getting a fresh start after the departure of its predecessors.
"It wasn't about the result tonight, it was about celebrating the things I've put into this team," Wambach said. "I'm so honored and blessed to have been able to be a part of this team for so many years and to bring home Olympic gold medals and the most recent World Cup trophy. I know people might think this is not the way we all want to end this thing, but I think symbolically it's kind of pretty awesome."
Abby Wambach Through the Years