Abby Wambach retired today. With her retirement, the third era of the United States Women’s National Team comes to an end. The first era was the beginning of the program in the mid-1980’s until 1991 when the USWNT established itself as the dominant team in the sport. The second was between 1991 and 1999 as the USWNT went from near-complete anonymity to national superstars. This third era from 2000-2015 was of a team that has, for the most part, been trying to recover its dominance when faced with vastly improved competition and rediscover an identity following the retirement of its long-time superstars. Not coincidentally, each of these eras ended with a World Cup win. The 1991 victory brought dominance, the 1999 victory brought superstardom, and the the 2015 victory brought vindication.
Each era of the USWNT has had many great players, some of the finest ever to play the game in every position. Nevertheless, in my mind, three stand above the rest, and those players’ apexes roughly correspond to the three aforementioned eras. First, Michelle Akers, arguably the greatest woman to ever play the game, played on the first ever USWNT and was the star of the 1991 World Cup. Mia Hamm was the dominant player after her, the world’s most prolific scorer in international soccer (women’s and men’s), and the USWNT’s first superstar. Finally came Abby Wambach. From about 2004 onward, Wambach was the paradigmatic American soccer player, and, as of this writing, is the current most prolific goal scorer in all of international soccer.
So Wambach has retired, and she did so with the World Cup title she so desperately craved. It was not a pretty journey along the way either–filled with heartache, drama, and Olympic gold (but only Olympic gold). I don’t think one player ever had so much of a stylistic effect on the USWNT. Wambach changed the way the US played to match her physicality; “Abby Ball” (crosses from the wings for Wambach to head in) dominated for the better part of a decade.
There is a lot to say, but that will have to be for another time. Right now I want to celebrate Wambach, and specifically recount one personal memory that is special to me. After the debacle of the 2007 World Cup, I felt somewhat ambivalently toward the USWNT. I supported for them, but did not love them. It was Wambach who rekindled that love of the USWNT for me. It was in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup against Marta’s Brazil. The US was down 1-2 in extra time stoppage time. Then in the 122nd, Megan Rapinoe fired a cross to Abby Wambach’s head.
Abby Wambach saved the USA’s life. It was a moment of pure magic that still gives me chills to think about. All ambivalence was ended. I firmly love the USWNT and now go regularly to support my NWSL team. Women’s soccer is my number one sport. It is all thanks to Abby Wambach.
I do not know what the future of the USWNT team will hold or who will be the next era-defining player (Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, someone who hasn’t even played yet?) if there is one. But today let us focus on one of the all-time US sports legends. May road rise to meet her and the wind be always at her back. Thank you for everything, Abby Wambach.