The United States women’s national team’s game plan for its exhibition against China at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Wednesday was clear: Get legendary American striker Abby Wambach one last goal for the road before her retirement began after the match.
The three aerial crosses the U.S. created within the first three minutes of the match — off a free kick, a corner kick and in the run of play — all sought Wambach’s head, which had scored many of the veteran’s 184 goals for the national team. But she didn’t connect on one, and the other two were cleared by the defense a few yards in front of the goal-line.
Wambach’s teammates also served her later on the ground with a couple more tantalizing opportunities as the Americans played most of the match on the Chinese half of the pitch.
Wambach — who’s scored more goals than any man or woman who’s played international soccer — took four touches just outside the 6-yard box on one of those occasions. But she couldn’t set up a shot, so she laid off a ball that teammate Carli Lloyd fired over Chinese keeper Zhao Lina’s goal.
With the other, Wambach used one touch to round a Chinese defender and another to try to poke the ball past Lina, but the shot came off softly and right at the keeper.
Each time, the 33,000 or so American fans in the Superdome gasped in anticipation. Each time, they exhaled in disappointment.
The moment they were waiting for — Wambach’s netting one more — never came before she was subbed off the pitch at the 72nd minute, with the Americans having shockingly gone down 1-0 to China 14 minutes earlier.
The U.S. never answered the goal it conceded. But even all that did little to rain on the parade the Superdome threw for the 35-year-old in the building’s stands.
Shortly before kickoff, fans held up a mosaic of gold and black cards spelling out, “There’s only one Abby.” They applauded loudly and held up signs reading, “American hero” and “Thank you” as U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati presented her with a bouquet of flowers as well as a large picture of her most iconic goal over the word, “Power.”
That play: The 2011 World Cup quarterfinal in Germany against Brazil, when she outleapt the opposing goalkeeper and a defender 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.
Yet there were countless other triumphs before and after that play that neither her teammates nor her fans will probably ever forget. The Olympic gold medals she helped capture in 2004 and 2012. The 2015 Women’s World Cup championship won in Canada, the Americans’ first since winning the 1999 tournament in home soil. The 73 assists she amassed during international play — which meant she was directly involved in more than one goal each time she suited up for the U.S., in a sport where scoring is notoriously difficult.
Nonetheless, Wambach spent the run-up to the match urging her teammates and fans to realize that the sooner they forgot her, the better.
If they did, that most likely meant the U.S. had won another Olympic gold medal — or better yet, another World Cup.
They’ve shown they have the ability to do so without Wambach, she said the day before the match. She was largely a reserve when the U.S. won its World Cup title this summer. She had a broken leg when the Americans won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
“I want to leave a legacy where the ball keeps rolling forward, where the next generation accomplishes things so great that I am no longer remembered,” Wambach said in an emotional video produced by one of her sponsors, Gatorade. “So forget me, because the day I’m forgotten is the day we will succeed.”
Regardless of what the U.S. accomplishes after Wambach took off her boots after an international match for the last time on Wednesday in New Orleans, her wish to be forgotten may never come true.
Fans made that clear on Wednesday, chanting, “Thank you, Abby! Thank you, Abby!” before, during, and after her final performance in an American uniform.
“I love this team,” Wambach said in comments delivered on the field to fans after the game. “It has been my pleasure and my honor to represent you all, the fans for as long as I’ve been able to. ... The future is so bright. These women are going to kill it.”
Wambach added, “I love you guys so much. Bourbon Street, watch out.”
She then dropped the microphone she was holding onto the pitch for dramatic effect and left.
A few hours later, early Thursday morning, the House of Blues in the French Quarter shared a photograph on Twitter that showed Wambach at the venue posing with other U.S. women’s soccer legends — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Cindy Parlow, who were all on the team that won the 1999 World Cup.
While the House of Blues isn’t on Bourbon, it’s not at all far either.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This post has been updated since it was first published to add a post-game quote and other details.