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The Greatest

Abby Wambach Leaves Soccer, Enters Pantheon of All-Time Greats

Wambach will leave the game a legend, a warrior for the sport of soccer and for female athletes, a frustrating and flawed FIFA Ballon d'Or winner.

by Meg Linehan
Oct 28 2015, 4:12pm

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Abby Wambach started her career with the U.S. Women's National Team in 2001, a rookie on a squad very much still in the shadow of the '99ers. She ended this chapter on Tuesday, retiring after a 15-year career after finally having won a World Cup of her own this summer. As the game of soccer came into its own in America, Wambach grew up with it, and she had a powerful impact on the popularity, development, and future of the sport.

READ MORE: Sights from the USWNT Victory Parade in NYC

There were expectations, even hopes, that Wambach would hang up her boots after the World Cup final victory in Canada. The Victory Tour would give her an opportunity to say goodbye to the game, her teammates and fans. Wambach had indicated, however, that she was still considering the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and she had dodged the retirement questions over the past few months.

So, despite the chatter, Wambach's announcement still came as a surprise. It followed a week of final games for her teammates Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, and Lauren Holiday, and came on the same day when the team was honored at the White House for their World Cup win (the very event where Wambach took a selfie with the President and managed to only get her hair into the photo). Not exactly the sort of news drop women's soccer fans were expecting for mid-afternoon on a Tuesday.

Wambach and some guy at the White House. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

She's retiring with two gold medals (2004 and 2012 Olympics); the World Cup trophy; and a lengthy list of individual accolades that goes back to her high school days, most notable among them the 2012 FIFA Player of the Year.

Wambach, even in the guarded language of a press release quote, clearly didn't come to the decision lightly. "After much deliberation and talking with my friends, family, teammates and our coaching staff, I've decided to finally bring my soccer career to an end," she said. "While we still have more work to do for women's soccer, after bringing the World Cup back to the United States this summer, I'm feeling extremely optimistic about the future of our sport. It's been an amazing, wonderful ride and I can't wait to see what the next chapter of my life brings."

The final bullet point of U.S. Soccer's press release contains a crucial building block of the legend of Abby Wambach: that she "excelled at soccer from the beginning, scoring 27 goals in her first three games at the age of five, necessitating a switch to competing against boys."

Carrying the trophy that mattered most. Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Scoring goals is a bit of a theme for Wambach. The Wikipedia page that tracks all 184 of her international goals—more than anyone else in history, has always read: man or woman, it's always specified—is a thing of beauty, tracking not just when and against whom she scored, but all of her 253 appearances for the national team, as well as every one of her assists. It's not unreasonable to expect Wambach to end with even higher numbers. Four more games in December remain on the Victory Tour to add to this list, two each against Trinidad and Tobago and China, and Wambach's teammates will be looking to help add to her totals.

That constant expectation has been the other theme of Wambach's career. On average, she scored in roughly half of the games in which she appeared. But just her presence on the field made opponents adjust their strategy, change their marking. There was always the anticipation of a stadium crowd, of her teammates, for Wambach to make something out of nothing, like in 2011, when she created a whole new generation of fans. It happened on a gorgeous summer night in 2013 too, which created a new record to chase.

If the magic has never quite hit that peak again—if Wambach's body betrayed her in the most human of fashions—there was still that expectation: for her to be the face of a team, of a nation, of a sport; for her to perform at levels she couldn't reach again; for her to carry a team during her last chance at a World Cup trophy.

Maybe these expectations weren't fair, but Wambach did better than most at meeting them. She is one of the greatest to play the game, regardless of gender. She's earned her spot in the pantheon of great American athletes.

Wambach became a super sub in this year's Women's World Cup. Photo by Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Wambach is finishing her career having finally hoisted the trophy that mattered most to her. By the time the 2015 World Cup ended, her role had changed from Jill Ellis's blunt weapon of choice to super sub, a role she embraced for the greater glory of the team. The end result this summer was anything but guaranteed, despite looking, in retrospect, like the U.S. victory was manifest destiny for women's soccer. Wambach teetered on the edge, and would likely have fallen from grace if things had turned out differently.

Wambach's legacy might have a few footnotes, ugliest among them being her time at magicJACK. As much as she has been involved in the promotion of women's soccer over the years, her continued endorsement of Dan Borislow through the time of his death is hard to reconcile with her public image. Again, those pesky expectations—for Wambach to meet a higher standard, to forgo easy money in defense of a teammate or the good of an entire professional league.

Acknowledging the complications and context of her accomplishments is messy, but worth the effort. It's OK to admit that she had shortcomings both as a player and as a person, to understand she scored plenty of those 184 goals in friendlies against outmatched opponents, a relentless shark in a pond full of minnows. Wambach was a scoring machine, and for years, the primary face of a team and a federation that value ticket sales just as much as long-term development. She'll leave the game a legend, a warrior for the sport and for female athletes, a frustrating and flawed FIFA Ballon d'Or winner. She is an imperfect athlete for an imperfect game, but that's soccer. That's sports.

Abby Wambach's final game, for club and country, will be December 16 in New Orleans against China. There are forty-nine days left. There's already the requisite hashtag from U.S. Soccer. The career retrospectives will come fast and furious; the crowds in Honolulu, San Antonio, Glendale, and New Orleans will be loud and emotional. And then the U.S. Women's National Team gets to figure out what soccer looks like in a post-Abby world.

As for Abby herself, the next chapter is still a question mark, though one she's been considering for a while. Her whirlwind summer is over, the ticker tape parade and endless press appearances completed. Three hundred and sixty minutes of soccer stand between her and what's next.