With so much attention on soccer superstar Abby Wambach’s looming retirement, everything was against Wang Shuang and her Chinese teammates when they kicked off against the United States at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Wednesday.
There were almost 33,000 fans fervently cheering for Wambach to score one more goal in her final match for the U.S. women’s national team. Wambach and her U.S. teammates had been undefeated in their last 104 matches on American soil, winning 91 and drawing the rest.
But all that those tall circumstances did was motivate Shuang and the rest of the Chinese squad to find a higher level. And their reward came in the 58th minute, when Shuang volleyed a cross from the right by Wang Shanshan past American goalkeeper Hope Solo to put China up 1-0, stunning the U.S. and their fans.
The U.S. did not answer Shuang’s strike, and thus China ended an unbeaten streak for the Americans that dated back to 2004.
“We did kind of steal the show, because we know the atmosphere and everything was for the U.S. team,” said Shuang, a 20-year-old midfielder who’s scored five goals for China in her senior international career. “And just the atmosphere made us want to beat them more.”
Speaking through a translator, the 5-foot Shuang added, “We hope that in the near future the Chinese fans in the stadium will be like (they were in the Superdome) and have a very strong support for women’s football in China.”
If nothing else, Wednesday provided a measure of revenge for the Chinese.
When Shuang was about 4, the U.S. soccer team defeated China on penalty kicks in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Pasadena, California.
The Americans then beat Shuang and China 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup in Canada that the U.S. ultimately won. And the Americans beat Shuang and her teammates 2-0 in an exhibition on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona.
But Shuang said China sensed that the United States was up to something different on Wednesday than it had been during the recent World Cup or on Sunday, when Wambach was a reserve.
The U.S. spent most of the 71 minutes Wambach was on the pitch Wednesday feeding her crosses through the air and on the ground, in hopes that the all-time leading scorer in men’s or women’s international soccer netted one more goal.
The 35-year-old Wambach — who since 2001 scored 184 goals in 255 international matches and helped the U.S. win one World Cup title and two Olympic gold medals — was not able to capitalize on any of several promising chances. And neither did any other member of the American team, which played most of the match on the Chinese half of the pitch and had an 87th minute goal waived off for what was deemed to be an offsides violation.
The Wambach-centric stance for the U.S. didn’t surprise Shuang.
“We know that Abby is a legend,” she said of Wambach, who wore the captain’s armband on Wednesday night. “She has the most international goals in soccer. We feel that, yeah, because it was her final match, she was kind of the center (of attention), and everybody tried to help make her the superstar of the match.”
It just didn’t pay off.
Wambach even admitted her teammates’ focus on sending her off into retirement with a goal was detrimental to the American attack.
“It was kind of symbolic,” Wambach said after the match, minutes removed from nonetheless using gestures to urge shocked fans in the Superdome to smile. “I played 70 minutes, and we don’t score a goal. For me it’s like, OK, it’s time to step away.”
China, on the other hand, was triumphantly efficient with its two shots on target during the 90-minute match. Solo saved one and watched the other — from Shuang — shake the back of the net.
After the match, one member of China’s coaching staff approached a reporter lingering outside the visitors’ locker room in the bowels of the Superdome and asked in English how long it had been since the Americans had lost in the United States.
When told it was 11 years, the man mouthed, “Wow.”
He glanced at one of his colleagues, who raised his eyebrows and in English said, “Guess we had a chance to ruin the festival!”
U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd acknowledged losing to China wasn’t in the script for Wambach’s retirement match.
“We really wanted to send her out with a bang,” Lloyd said. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
PARTING NOTE: Wednesday marked the end of a nine-match, cross-country tour meant to celebrate the U.S.’s World Cup victory. Before falling on Wednesday, the U.S. won seven matches against Costa Rica, Haiti, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago as well as China — and drew another versus the Brazilians — while outscoring their opponents 40-2.
The tour was also meant to serve as preparation for the North American, Central American and Caribbean Olympic qualifying tournament in February.
QUOTABLE: “The future is so bright. These women (on the U.S. team) are going to kill it. I know it. ... I love you guys so much. Bourbon Street, watch out.” —Wambach, to the crowd during a post-match interview on the Superdome pitch, before dropping the microphone on the ground for dramatic effect.