Wambach’s future role outside football nothing short of grand
NEW ORLEANS —
Wambach likes to get things done. The 184 goals she has booked is surely a testament to that. As her former teammate Julie Foudy said, Abby Wambach is about purpose. She likes to see the meaning in things. She likes to give meaning to things.
That’s why it’s tough to wax romantic or get too sentimental about her retirement — even when Wambach’s 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal header against Brazil has been voted the best ever in Women’s World Cup history; the best in U.S. soccer history, too. Take that, Landon Donovan!
Wambach’s feats on the soccer field have been nothing less than galvanizing moments for so many of us. She has been every bit as brilliant in the huddle, in the locker room, in the TV studio, with her friends and family as she has been in the air, aiming her entire soul at the mouth of the goal.
Would the National Women’s Soccer League enter its fourth season without Wambach’s header from Megan Rapinoe’s classic serve back in 2011? Wambach’s moment reinvigorated public interest in women’s soccer not just in the U.S., but around the world. Nigeria is funding its own women’s program now. France has become elite. Mexico and Brazil and Spain have been shamed by their own female athletes for shorting their women’s national programs.
The times have changed over the 16 years since the U.S. won its second Women’s World Cup. And while the U.S. women suffered a fear of failure through World Cup losses in 2003, 2007 and 2011, Wambach has been the woman warrior epicenter for women’s soccer. With her own legacy affirmed this summer in Canada, Wambach is, indeed, the great descendent of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and the rest of the 99ers.
Now, Wambach’s playing days may be over, but is this really the end for Wambach? According to the 35-year-old soccer legend: No way.
Wambach has declined to say she’ll be the next Billie Jean King. As the holder of 39 Grand Slam tennis titles across singles and doubles, King has become a leader in inclusion in workplace diversity through her Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative. She is the perfect role model for the soccer champion who will leave with 184 goals — or more.
It’s tough to imagine that against China, in her last game ever, Wambach won’t be the recipient of some very favorable serves from Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd and the rest of the gang. Too bad Megan Rapinoe, who tore her ACL in training earlier this month, won’t be around for one last bit of magic.
But for all everyone wants to look back at what Wambach has done in the past, on the field, she’s looking forward. When you hear Wambach discussing her next goal in life, the ambition is nothing short of grand.
"I am going to change the world and I’m talking to everybody in the possible world that I can get to that can help me to do that,” Wambach said. "I’m going to do anything I can do, whether that’s being part of FIFA or creating some sort of movement that can actually impart real equality across all lines, in every country, every city, every sector all over the world, that’s what I’m going to do. I have a team of people and I’m strategizing. I’ve got many different people in my circle that I trust and we’re kind of creating this thing. Nothing’s set, nothing’s solid. We’ll see.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Wambach will get the start Wednesday against China here in New Orleans. Adrenaline will have to carry Wambach through, somehow. Last week in Honolulu, before Wambach and her teammates defiantly refused to play on the horrible Aloha Stadium astroturf and dramatically canceled that Victory Tour match, Wambach called herself "old." She joked with U.S. national team trainers after practice, her 5-foot-11 frame slumped on a bench.
"Is this what it’s like, wondering what to do every day for the rest of your life?” Wambach said, joking. And it’s true: This retirement party for Wambach has been a long time coming.
When the U.S. lost to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup finals, Wambach and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati stood together at baggage claim. Gulati told Wambach that she must come back, she must try one more time.
That’s why, when the whistle blew on July 5, 2015, and the U.S. women’s national soccer team had won its first Women’s World Cup in 16 years, Wambach knew she was done. The entire scene was in slow motion, like the end of an epic movie, especially for Wambach. Japan players trudged off the field heads down and Wambach was on her knees in the middle of B.C. Place field. Her clenched fists were raised, the look on her face was both ecstatic and exhausted.
Five long months later — after a 10-game Victory Tour slog has sapped the celebration right out of women’s soccer — Wambach is finally going to play her official last match. But the transition for Wambach — and the U.S. women’s national team — has already taken place.
During the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Wambach’s role as the focal point of the U.S. offense came to an end. What had long been anticipated — that the propensity for the Americans to use the longball and depend on Wambach to finish the play with her head — came true.
In group play in Canada, Wambach said the artificial turf spooked her into not playing full out. But deep down, she knew that something had changed in her. Had she ever played with doubt before? The U.S. had to change course and Wambach went from being a starter in three games to coming off the bench in four Women’s World Cup matches. It was Lloyd and the overdue switch of attack tactics that accounted for the U.S. victories over China, Germany and Japan in the knockout rounds.
In the Victory Parade in New York City and on the road across America, Lloyd was the face of the U.S. national team. As the U.S. runs through this Victory Tour and starts aiming toward Olympic qualifying, Morgan is getting used to playing without her friend and mentor up top. Ellis has called up Crystal Dunn, a high-impact player who is ready for her turn. Lindsay Horan has come back from France to show what she can do.
I’m going to do anything I can do, whether that’s being part of FIFA or creating some sort of movement that can actually impart real equality across all lines.
Abby Wambach, on her future after soccer.
The U.S. national team roster is being shuffled and reshaped. Lauren Holiday is gone. So is Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny. Wambach waited until October to finally tell her teammates Dec. 16, 2015, will be her final game ever. She didn’t want her retirement to overshadow the team or her teammates. But the time has come.
Wambach will retire while wearing that coveted third star on her U.S. national team jersey. She will do so knowing she left it all on the field. She will also do so knowing that her greatest role in sports, and in life, is very likely ahead of her.