NEW ORLEANS -- When the final whistle blew Wednesday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Abby Wambach, the most prolific scorer in international soccer history, officially called it a career.
Along with being her final career match, the friendly against China also marked the last stop of the team’s Victory Tour, ending a chapter for the renowned squad that won this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
For Wambach, who was named U.S. Soccer’s Female Athlete of the Year a record six times, it was the right way to go out. She credited coach Jill Ellis and the coaching staff for letting her finish her career on her terms.
“(They) have given me a lot of leeway to make these last couple of weeks what I really wanted them to be like,” Wambach said. “Long ago when I told Jill I was going to be retiring from the game, I really didn’t want to tell anybody. I didn’t want to make a big deal of this. I didn’t want this Victory Tour to turn into the farewell Abby tour. I thought it would have been kind of cool to just say nothing and leave.”
However, staff members convinced Wambach that fans would want the opportunity to say goodbye to her, so she decided to make her farewell plans public in October.
“I think that is why coming in (to play) the last 10-15 minutes of the last few games has been really cool, really important,” Wambach said.
Wambach, 35, was part of a team that has become one of the most storied in the sport this past year. More than 25 million Americans witnessed the World Cup final against Japan, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. Since the win, Wambach and the team have traveled across the country for nine Victory Tour games, giving fans a chance to see the popular players in action. And just last week the team was named Olympic Team of the Year at the Team USA Awards presented by Dow, Best of the Year.
The World Cup victory capped an unmatched 14-year career with the national team.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Wambach’s memorable header during the 2004 Olympic final secured the victory for the U.S. team. She missed playing the 2008 Games (which the U.S. team won) due to a broken leg, but in 2012 she helped the Americans snag another Olympic gold, propelling Wambach to be named FIFA World Player of the Year that year.
This summer proved fruitful for the focused forward when the U.S. women won the World Cup, a victory that had eluded her in three previous appearances at the sport’s major event. Though this year marked the landmark win, she made powerful impressions during past tournaments, including her last-minute iconic header during the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup, recently voted the greatest goal in FIFA Women's World Cup history by fans.
In total, Wambach has scored a record 184 goals in 255 games with the national team.
The last of those games was Wednesday night as the Victory Tour came to an end with a showdown against China, the U.S. team’s most frequent opponent. The U.S. women’s first game at the Superdome, home turf of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, was a memorable one, with a supportive 32,950 fans in attendance.
Wambach started the match and also served as team captain. A mass of friends and fans were in the crowd to support her, including past national team members Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain. Wambach’s family had flown in on a private plane to be at the match.
However, China won the match 1-0, ending a 104 home-game winning streak for the U.S. team, a tally that dates back to 2004.
Though Wambach has been an instrumental and vocal leader for the national team, she said she isn’t worried for the team’s future, making reference to the moments in the team’s history when legendary players such as Hamm and other stars from the squad that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup played their last matches.
“This team is going to be just fine, because it always has been,” Wambach said. “This team has everywhere to go and it’s going to go straight up.”
Qualifying for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games is next on the radar for the squad. The Americans are three-time defending Olympic champions and have had a strong showing at the Games since women’s soccer was introduced into the program in 1996.
Wambach won’t be on the field in Rio — she says she will definitely be a fan watching and supporting them though — but the foundation she helped create appears strong.
“I feel privileged to be part of this team and certainly privileged to be part of Abby’s career,” Ellis said. “She’s been instrumental in the success of this team, certainly while I’ve been on board and certainly prior to that. I’ve publicly and personally thanked her many, many times for her leadership, her experience, her spirit, all the amazing things both on and off the field that she has given to both this program and her teammates. I will say she will be dearly missed.”