Wednesday (Dec. 16) marked the end of Abby Wambach’s illustrious career, the World Cup champions’ Victory Tour, and a record that may never be broken.
The U.S. women’s team, more focused on giving Wambach a fitting sendoff than on winning a soccer game, lost 1-0 to China before almost 33,000 fans at the Superdome in New Orleans.
The loss ended a home unbeaten streak that had lasted more than 11 years, covering 104 games. The Americans last lost on U.S. soil on Nov. 6, 2004, when Denmark beat them 3-1 in Philadelphia. (In a turn with some irony, the unbeaten streak began the next month with a 5-0 rout of Mexico on Dec. 9, 2004. That was the final game for Mia Hamm, the legend whose mantle was passed to Wambach.)
On Wednesday, against a disciplined, organized Chinese defense, the U.S. players tried over and over to feed the ball to Wambach — who started, wore the captain’s armband and played 72 minutes — in hopes that she could add one more goal to her record total of 184.
It was a moving gesture, but a poor strategy. Wambach, slow and out of shape, didn’t get a clear strike with her head or her foot on any of the balls sent her way.
Her 72 minutes were more than she’d played in the last six Victory Tour games combined.
According to the Fox Sports broadcast team of JP Dellacamera and the endlessly yammering Cat Whitehill, Jill Ellis said before the game that Wambach would play only 50 minutes or so. But even the flinty U.S. coach apparently got caught up in Abbymania. She didn’t pull the beloved icon even after China took the lead in the 58th minute.
Only when Wambach signaled to the bench that she was gassed — something obvious to anyone watching the game — was she taken off for Christen Press.
The unbeaten streak would have survived the Abbyfest had anyone else been able to finish on those rare occasions when the ball wasn’t sailing Wambach’s way. Unfortunately, the entire U.S. team played like it was tired or distracted or just out of sync. Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath repeatedly launched shots that sailed six feet over the top of the net, except when they sailed 10 feet over the top of the net. Alex Morgan did nothing before leaving in the 31st minute with what appeared to be a hamstring or groin pull. Press, Lindsey Horan, and Crystal Dunn, all major contribtors of late, were ineffective off the bench. New kids Jaelene Hinkle, Emily Sonnett, and Stephanie McCaffrey — who came on for Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, and Meghan Klingenberg, respectively — all made rookie mistakes, none worse than Hinkle’s leaving Wang Shuang poorly marked in the box for what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
Meanwhile, the Chinese — and particularly goalkeeper Zhao Lina, who stopped seven shots — made it clear that they were intent on winning, not on playing bit parts in Abby’s Final Farewell.
AI watched them, I kept thinking of the warning that Apollo Creed’s trainer Duke tried in vain to deliver to the champ in the first Rocky film: “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!“)
One could argue that in the end, the loss mattered little. Except for snapping a remarkable streak, it mattered not at all.
The new world rankings come out on Friday (Dec. 18), and it doesn’t seem possible that the Americans’ hold on the No. 1 spot will be shaken by a 1-0 loss to a very good Chinese team. The game was the last of the year for the U.S. women; their only other loss in 2015 was in the first game of the year. In between, the team’s accomplishments were nothing short of remarkable.
Wednesday night in New Orleans was all about Abby Wambach, as well it should have been.
Still, I suspect that if you asked Wambach whether she’d rather have padded her scoring record with one more goal or ended her magnificent career with a win, she wouldn’t hesitate for one second before answering.