Abby Wambach threatened to score several times in the final game of her extraordinary career, but China edged the United States 1-0 on Wednesday night
The match hadnt even started yet and Abby Wambach already had tears in her eyes.
With Wambachs family flown in from upstate New York and 32,950 fans in the crowd, the Superdome of New Orleans was filled with expectation. An era was ending and Wambach, a defining face of the US womens national team for so long, was checking in for her final match.
China, however, didnt care to stick to the script and had no problem playing party spoiler on Wednesday night. Wang Shuang took a shot in the 58th minute that deflected off an American defender just enough to catch Hope Solo wrong-footed, the matchs only goal.
A 1-0 victory for China ends a staggering 104-match unbeaten streak at home for the USA women, stretching back to 2004. But the Americans will surely deal with that tomorrow and spend tonight remembering Wambach, whose legacy will be one of the most celebrated in US soccer history.
Wambach, 35, did not find her farewell goal, despite her teammates best efforts. She had two chances with her head in the opening minutes that Chinas stout defense did well to stop. At the half-hour mark, she slickly cut through a defender a toe-poked a chance that goalkeeper Zhao Lina smothered.
In the 72nd minute, in her 255th appearance, her career was over. Wambach took off her cleats, perhaps a symbolic gesture as much as a practical one, and she began to walk to the sideline for hugs.
I think its pretty fitting that I played 70 minutes and we werent able to score a goal, Wambach joked afterward. Its like, OK, maybe it is time for me to go. These younger players have so much to look forward to and Ive been the blessed one for so many years to be a part of this team.
The team is in their hands now, an emotional Wambach added.
Once she announced back in October that it would be her final game before retirement, this match took on a very different meaning. No longer was it about preparing for Olympic qualifying or who coach Jill Ellis may be evaluating as a newcomer it was all about bidding farewell.
Wambachs goalscoring career, stretching back 15 years at international level, is not only the most prolific from an American, but from anyone. She retires having scored 184 goals, the most of any man or women in the history of international soccer. She scored against 33 different countries in 14 countries.
Wambach joked that it was fitting to lose in her last match, but the result was a remarkable one. Going into Wednesdays match, the USA was undefeated in 26 straight games against China, last losing in 2003. China is also the opponent the US women have faced the most, other than Canada.
I know everybody wanted to get me a goal, Wambach said. Thats probably why we didnt score, because they were so focused on trying to get me a goal.
It was perhaps a regrettable twist of irony that Wambachs final appearance came on the exact sort of turf she railed against so much this year: uneven artificial turf on an American football field. The ball did not bounce in Wambachs favor in at least once chance in front of goal, when the ball sprung too high for her to connect.
Wambach, known for being a vocal leader of the Americans, doesnt appear to be going quietly. She stirred controversy hours before the game by suggesting the US mens coach Jrgen Klinsmann should be fired.
She has left her future plans open, but does have an autobiography slated to be released next year.
For her teammates, Olympic qualifying looms large now that their at-times controversial victory tour is over. Qualifying will begin in February after an extended training camp and match in January, and Ellis will be tasked with selecting the next roster to replace the one that won the World Cup over the summer.
- This article was amended on Thursday 17 December. Wambach was making her 255th appearance, not her 256th, as we previously said. This has now been changed.