Wambach, heart of U.S. team, takes parting shots before last game


The U.S. women’s national soccer team has gone through roughly the same drill before almost every game it has played over the last several years.

The players would huddle shoulder to shoulder, reaching their hands into the middle of the scrum, waiting for Abby Wambach to speak. Wambach routinely drenched her hair with water before games, so it would spray onto the others as she worked herself into an oratorical lather.

“She curses and screams,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said, smiling. “And she always stumbles on a word or two.”

On Sunday, before a game in Glendale, Arizona, Wambach tried something different. She stood back. She did not say a word. And then she watched, delighted, as two of her teammates stepped up to speak.

For Wambach, the moment, however small, helped validate what she has felt since the summer, when she decided to retire: that the team and the sport would be just fine without her, that she would be comfortable moving on to the next stage of her professional life.

“Now my 35-year-old, slow body can watch from the sidelines,” Wambach said.

Wambach recently captained the women’s national team for an exhibition match at the Superdome against China, the last game of her playing career. The United States lost, 1-0, in front of an announced crowd of 32,950, bringing to an end a 104-game unbeaten streak on American soil.

Wambach walked off the field in a U.S. uniform for the final time in the 72nd minute, removing her cleats on the spot and handing her captain’s armband to Lloyd. She hugged each of her teammates — they were sending her passes all game, trying to get her a goal — and shuffled across the artificial turf in her socks to the bench.

“It’s kind of symbolic,” Wambach said. “I get 70 minutes, and we don’t score a goal. For me, it’s OK. It’s time to step away.”

To outsiders, Wambach has been one of the global faces of the sport. To insiders, she has been the national team’s spiritual leader. To just about everyone who follows soccer, she has been a powerhouse of a striker — one of the best headers of the ball in the game — and among the most decorated athletes in the sport.

She has also been one of its most plain-spoken personas. Before Wednesday’s game, she caused a stir with an interview for Bill Simmons’ podcast in which she strongly suggested that Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the men’s team, should be fired.

Wambach’s most provocative criticisms targeted Klinsmann’s efforts to recruit players born, raised and trained elsewhere. She referred to those players as “a bunch of these foreign guys,” specifically mentioning Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, who were born in Germany and participated in that country’s national team program before committing to play for the United States.

Although Wambach complimented both Jones and Johnson, she implied that efforts to recruit such players came at the expense of youth player development inside the United States.

The practice recruiting of players born in one country to play for a national team somewhere else is common in soccer, and Jones actually joined the U.S. team before Klinsmann did. But Wambach was not offering excuses for Klinsmann, who has been the team’s coach since July 2011.

“I would definitely fire Jurgen,’’ she said, adding: “He hasn’t really focused, I feel, enough attention on the youth programs.’’

Late Wednesday, Wambach said she was surprised she had caused a stir and noted she was merely expressing an opinion. She then ribbed the federation president Sunil Gulati, who was watching her news conference.

“I was asked a simple question,” she said. “I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands moving forward. Maybe Sunil will ask me to be the men’s coach — that’s a joke, people.”

The game was Wambach’s 255th appearance for the national team. Her most promising chance to score — a quick toe-poke from about 12 yards out in the first half — dribbled weakly to the goalkeeper, and she finished her national team career with 184 goals, the record in international play for both women and men.

All night the stands gushed with cheers and affection for Wambach, who played in four World Cups (winning one) and captured two Olympic gold medals. In 2012, she was named the FIFA World Player of the Year.

“She will be irreplaceable,” coach Jill Ellis said.

With the game, Wambach and her teammates wrapped up a 10-game schedule of exhibition matches following their World Cup title last summer, a barnstorming cross-country production nicknamed the Victory Tour. Things grew increasingly emotional as the final game neared.

Wambach said six of her teammates walked into her hotel room two days before the game and began to cry. Four more teammates did the same the next day. On Wednesday, about a hundred friends and family members from Rochester, N.Y., her hometown, and the University of Florida, where she won a national championship, attended the game.

Wambach said she did not initially want the fanfare of a farewell tour. Dan Levy, her agent, said it was Wambach’s former teammate Shannon Boxx, who retired in October, who convinced Wambach that “she owed it to her teammates and her fans and to all the people who loved women’s soccer, for them to be able to celebrate not just her, but the progress the whole team made over her career.”

Progress has been made in all areas — though more in some than others. For instance, Wambach said she was satisfied not to receive much playing time in the last World Cup because it proved that the team’s young players had surpassed her abilities.

She recalled the tactics when she first started playing for the national team: long balls toward her head, which she would try to knock down for Mia Hamm to put in the net. The game, she said, was faster and more intricate now.

“There are players that are better than I am that will take this game into the next decade,” Wambach said of women’s soccer.

But while Wambach marveled about the progress on the field, she spoke more carefully about other issues in women’s soccer, like player compensation compared with men’s teams.

When the topic arose Tuesday, she sat up straight and clasped her hands on the table. Regarding the status of female athletes in the country, she said — diplomatically but with force — that there was “room to grow.” It was a point that has become clearer to her of late, as she has taken her first steps away from soccer.

“When you’re in it, when you innately have been taught it your whole life, you can’t see it,” Wambach said of inequality, noting that U.S. Soccer deserved credit for being ahead of the federations of other countries. “I think that it’s time for something to change, and enough is enough.”

Levy said Wambach was still assessing how best devote her energy in the coming months and years. After the World Cup, Wambach had opportunities to meet with politicians and executives in major companies like Apple and Facebook, further opening her eyes to the world outside soccer.

“She’s in a mode of trying to talk to as many people as she can and learn as much as she can to decide where she can be most impactful,” Levy said. In the short term, Wambach will begin work on a memoir expected to be published at the end of 2016. Levy said that while Wambach wanted the book to have some typical elements of an autobiography, she also wanted it to serve as a blueprint for her work moving forward.

Amid all that, she will try to enjoy soccer as a spectator, starting with the national team’s next challenge, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I’m going to be a fan and watch, for once,” Wambach said, “and it’s going to be awesome.”