If all goes according to plan Wednesday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, U.S. soccer legend Abby Wambach will march off the field after one final start wearing the captain’s armband while thousands of spectators stand and applaud.
It won’t matter how Wambach plays in the friendly match against China, her last before retiring as the most prolific goal scorer in men’s or women’s international soccer.
To many, her farewell scene will be worthy of a place in the history of the building where boxer Roberto Duran muttered “No mas” and surrendered his welterweight championship belt to “Sugar” Ray Leonard. Or where Michael Jordan nailed a late jumper to lift North Carolina’s basketball team to an NCAA title.
Or where Steve Gleason blocked a punt the night the building reopened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina.
As teammate Morgan Brian said of Wambach, “She’s one of the best — if not the best — ever to put on a U.S. soccer jersey.”
Wambach’s career was almost snuffed out prematurely, she revealed Tuesday in her last official news conference as a pro player. When Wambach was a young national team prospect, U.S. soccer coach Jill Ellis wasn’t impressed with the forward’s fitness level, though her sturdy frame and near 6-foot height were hard to keep off the field.
Ellis came up with an idea: play Wambach at the center of the defense.
But Wambach didn’t settle for a position change, and she earned an opportunity to play at the top of the U.S. attack.
The ensuing results were mind-boggling.
Since 2001, the Rochester, New York, native helped the United States win two Olympic gold medals as well as a FIFA women’s World Cup. She helped the U.S. to a runner-up showing and two third-place finishes in the other three World Cups for which she suited up.
Along the way, she netted an unprecedented 184 goals in 254 matches for the U.S. — just below a goal a game in a sport where scoring is notoriously difficult.
“Well, (184) goals later, I’ve obviously been proven wrong,” Ellis said Tuesday of her early doubts about Wambach. “She will be irreplaceable.”
Wambach’s most iconic moment, at least, may be difficult to replicate. That was during the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal in Germany against Brazil, when she outleapt the opposing goalkeeper to thunderously head in a long cross in the last seconds of extra time, tying the match at two goals and sending it into a penalty shootout the Americans won.
Fans of the two teams reacted by either leaping off their feet and shouting or freezing in place and clutching their heads in disbelief.
That campaign ended in a painful penalty-shootout defeat to Japan in the title match that saw the Americans squander a 1-0 lead in regulation and a 2-1 advantage given to them by Wambach in extra time. But the U.S. rectified that this summer in Canada, winning their first World Cup title since the national team’s victory in the 1999 tournament on home soil.
By the time this summer’s cup matches began, Wambach was 35 and relatively old for an athlete. Nonetheless, while starting in two of the U.S.’s seven matches and coming in as substitute for the remaining five, she contributed a first-round goal to a campaign that culminated with a 5-2 rout of Japan in the title match.
Winning a World Cup was the sole piece of unfinished business Wambach had late in her career, teammate Alex Morgan said before a training session at the Superdome on Tuesday.
“For Abby to cap off the end of her journey with a World Cup win — I don’t think there’s more of a high that she could come up off of,” Morgan said.
Wambach on Tuesday called it “a good thing” that the U.S. won a World Cup with her in a secondary role. That meant the national team’s future is in great hands and she can calmly enjoy the retirement she announced in October.
Wambach said she intends to focus on using her stature as an athlete to rally support for erasing the gender pay gap across all industries, including professional sports.
She said she’s also eager to experience life as a fan of U.S. soccer — and not one who’s sacrificing her body during some of its tensest moments.
Yet before that, a celebration is in order: her final match, against a nation the U.S. defeated 1-0 in this summer’s World Cup quarterfinals as well as 2-0 in friendly competition in Glendale, Arizona, on Sunday.
The U.S. will be an obvious favorite when it kicks off a 7 p.m. match that will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
Of the eight matches they’ve played so far on what will be a nine-game tour commemorating the World Cup victory, the Americans have won seven and drawn one while outscoring their opponents 40-2.
Yet, for Wambach, Wednesday’s result is secondary. Her friends and family are all joining the 29,000 expected to bid her adieu at the Dome.
And she said she couldn’t think of a better city — or stadium, given all that’s happened in it — to mark the start of the new chapter in her life.
“Tomorrow, after the game, is going to be an amazing party,” Wambach said Tuesday. “There’s no better place for it to be than New Orleans.
“Watch out, Bourbon Street. It’s going to be a fun night.”