On Wednesday night, the city of New Orleans will host the final game in the illustrious career of the greatest American soccer player ever. If, despite the header image, you are still confused as to the antecedent of that phrase, here is another: the all-time highest goal scorer in international play for both men and women. No? This was the only soccer player listed on the TIME 100 list for 2015, and that was prior to the World Cup victory.
For over a decade, Abby Wambach has been the talisman of American soccer excellence, not unlike Serena Williams in tennis. While the men have had their moments of individual brilliance – Landon Donovan against Algeria in 2010, Tim Howard becoming the Secretary of Defense against Belgium in 2014 – Wambach has sustained her knack for goal-scoring and competitiveness, finally seeing through her destiny in 2015 with a World Cup victory in Vancouver, the ultimate revenge against Japan, the country which had stifled a seemingly relentless American machine in 2011. Though the USWNT will continue without her, it would be unfair and callous to casually dismiss the contributions of Abby Wambach to her sport in this country.
At the University of Florida, she was a national champion as a freshman, leading a team which had only been in existence for three years over the powerhouse University of North Carolina Tar Heels, an established program boasting fifteen national titles and alumni including her national teammates Mia Hamm and Heather O’Reilly. She was a three-time first-team All-American, two-time SEC Player of the Year and four-time SEC champion and remains, as of this writing, Florida’s all-time leading goalscorer, among multitudinous other awards you can survey on Wikipedia at your leisure.
Since her formative years in Rochester, New York, there isn’t really an accolade that doesn’t belong to Wambach. She’s accumulated Olympic medals as well as boots and balls of every fashionable color (Golden, Silver and Bronze). She’s scored goals at every level, from high school through the NWSL and its predecessors, the WUSA and WPS.
As adroit as she has always been at finding the goal, ripping it out by its posts and carrying it aloft to signal her dominance over it, what people will remember about Wambach is her immaculate timing. It was always as if the soccer gods held her in a pen, like an incensed bull who has just returned from a trip to the butcher, only to release her at the moments when the United States (because, if we’re being frank, the games with the national team were when people were paying the most attention, for better or for worse) needed her the most. See Wambach unleashing a fierce header against Brazil at the Olympics in 2004 to win the gold medal and then upstage herself eight years later with the latest goal ever scored in a FIFA competition, also against Brazil, breaking Donovan’s merely year-old record.
Always lauded for her leadership, Wambach suffered the kinds of setbacks befitting of a tragic hero, even if she didn’t deserve the adjective. A horrific broken leg kept her out of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and she quite literally got punched in the face during a game against Colombia at the London Olympics in 2012. No matter, of course: she went on to score a goal in that game.
There is really no more American player than Abby Wambach, in the “white picket fence, two-and-a-half kids and a dog, pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sense. Particularly, that last part rings true. She didn’t merely pound the ball toward the goal off corners and crosses, like her legacy will suggest. The longtime captain of the USWNT, Wambach had an endless motor and a keen awareness of her teammates, often deploying herself as a decoy in order to distract defenders and open spaces for others. Wambach’s mind for soccer was just as honed as her skill, which allowed her to be effective for much longer than some of her early contemporaries.
Nor does individual play tell the whole story, of course; just ask Alan Shearer, who, despite being the Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, won only one Premier League title during his eighteen years. Something was annoyingly missing from Wambach’s list of achievements until this year. Being the bridge from the Mia Hamm era in American women’s soccer to the present¹ calls for both individual and team success, and though the Olympic golds were nice, the job could not be considered finished until Wambach captured a World Cup of her own.
While the USWNT has gotten significantly better over the last decade and a half – certainly in direct response to Hamm’s 1999 World Cup-winning squad – so has the rest of the world. In 2003, Germany derailed a possible repeat for the Americans. In 2007, Brazil capitalized on the benching of Hope Solo, humiliating Brianna Scurry and the U.S. 4-0. In 2011, of course, Japan halted the American charge in penalties, despite a Wambach headed goal in the first half. Naturally, Wambach was the only U.S. player to score her penalty.
Finally, playing in her fourth and final World Cup in 2015, the greatest American soccer player ever came away a champion. Starting every game on the bench allowed her to be the fresh legs of it. At 35, she relied on the next generation of great American women players, such as Alex Morgan, Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian, to carry her. Against Nigeria, she slotted home a signature corner kick from Megan Rapinoe, which proved to be her final World Cup goal.
After the U.S. scored four goals in the first sixteen minutes of the final against Japan, including a hat trick from Carli Lloyd, it became clear that Wambach would have her redemption. Upon being subbed on with ten minutes remaining, she was met with applause from the thousands of American fans who had traveled to see the spectacle.
At the final whistle, Wambach kissed her wife, a personal gesture on the world’s biggest stage. Once you climb Everest, it’s best to savor the view. To Abby Wambach, American soccer owes a premium debt, the likes of which only future generations are capable of repaying. This one, however, doesn’t seem so bad.
¹All due respect to Christie Rampone.