It was the autumn of 2004 and the nation was paying tribute to the likes of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain during the post-Olympic victory tour. But in Rochester, N.Y., a sea of white No. 20 jerseys erupted when a 24-year-old hometown kid’s name was called on the intercom. Eleven years later, that kid from Rochester – Abby Wambach- stands as the all-time leading goal scorer in international soccer – male or female in Earth’s most popular pastime, and she marches onto the field for the final time Wednesday.
In her next-to-last cap, Sunday’s 2-0 win over China at Glendale, Ariz., the 35-year-old was greeted with an ovation reserved for the icons of sport when she entered, taking the captain’s band from Carli Lloyd in the 80th minute, much to the fashion she did in the World Cup final this summer. It was a magical moment.
Her record 184 goals in 254 caps equates to 0.67 goals per match, while second-place Hamm’s 158 in 275 is 0.57. In comparison, the men’s record holder, Ali Daei, scored 109 times in 14 years for Iran, Cristiano Ronaldo averages 0.45 per international match, and U.S. men’s record holder Landon Donovan scored 57 times in 157 caps.
“Abby’s been awesome, a tremendous teammate, and she’s done a great job of not making it about her,” said 23-year-old Crystal Dunn, who was one of the final players cut from the World Cup roster. “It’s weird because it is going to be her last game. She just wants to end on a high note, but she just goes with the flow. We all want to see her go out on a high. It’s going to be exciting. We’re going to celebrate a champ going out. I’ve learned what it means to represent our country and out on this jersey every day. She is just so passionate and presents that to us every day, whether she’s on the field or not, it’s something we can all take in. We’ll miss her as a leader, most importantly.”
After winning the NCAA championship as a freshman at the University of Florida in 1998, Wambach made her national team debut versus Germany on Sept. 9, 2001. She led the team with three goals at the 2003 World Cup and six at the 2007 edition, as the U.S. won bronze in each. An injury kept her out of the Beijing Olympics, but she rebounded to win a second gold at the 2012 London Games, a year in which she was named FIFA Player of the Year. She finally got her paws on the one jewel missing from her collection, when she won the World Cup in July.
“Not just Abby as a player and all her goals, but what she is as a leader, fighting for equality and other issues,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, who has played on the national team since 2000. “She’s a big personality, and I don’t think we’ve ever lost a personality as big as Abby’s, not just on the field but off the field, as well. I’ve found myself getting really emotional at times. I just look at her, and I think whenever I leave, I can leave on terms as great as hers, leaving with a smile, leaving with confidence, and knowing what she did for the program.”
Wambach scored twice that afternoon in Rochester as the U.S. beat Iceland, 4-3, in its first match since the Athens Olympics on her overtime goal versus Brazil. Growing up in the same area, sometimes we notice the local stars simply because they come from where we come from, oblivious to the impression they make around the world. But as the sun sets on the career of Abby Wambach, there is no question she has made her impression around the world, as one of all-time greatest female athletes in any sport. The final match, versus China, can be seen at 6 p.m. MT Wednesday on FOX Sports 1, from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
“The team feels the best way is to leave it all on the field,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “We have to play our hearts out for her.”