Last year, now departing USA head coach Jill Ellis said she would have taken the mercurial Abby Wambach to the 2015 Women’s World Cup even if “she’d been on one leg.” The 39-year-old was coming towards the end of what had been illustrious, generation-defining career when the tournament in Canada rolled around, and a World Cup medal was all that eluded the striker who had become the top goal scorer around the world, a record she still holds onto to this day.
With three previous World Cups and two Olympics – both which ended with gold medals – behind her, Ellis knew Wambach’s presence would be vital to the team’s chances of this time going all the way, having not won the tournament since the famous ‘99’ers’ on home soil, before the turn of the millennium. Like many others, it all started a long time ago for Mary Abigail Wambach, who would go on to coin the name ‘Abby’ that would become so synonymous with her profile as a world-class footballer.
Wambach was born in New York, the last of seven children, but the interest in soccer came early enough for her to know it was always going to be her sport. Several of her siblings played as a kid and, as the youngest sister, Wambach was only too happy to join in the fun. Little did she know that she would go on to become one of the most recognisable and talented female athletes not just in the USA, but around the world.
She defined a generation-changing period for the USWNT, as legends came and went during a period of the team’s history where World Cup glory eluded them, but it was Wambach who became one of the few constants as everything changed around her.
It soon became obvious her future was in the sport, 142 goals in high school enough to prove so, but her dedication was also noticeable. Her high school coach, Kathy Boughton, noted Wambach would stay behind to practice diving headers, a feature which would become a trademark of her game on the international stage over the next two decades. She was coveted by every top college and university side in the country, eventually settling on the Florida Gators, who she helped take to their first-ever NCAA Division I title before her international career took off at the start of the 2000s.
It was less than 48 hours before 9/11 that Wambach made her senior debut for the USA, in a friendly match against Germany which her side won comfortably. Her first goal came seven months later, in a friendly in San Jose against Finland. Another 183 would follow over the next 13 years.
Having played just six games, starting three, Wambach was named by April Heinrichs to the USA’s squad for the 2003 World Cup on home soil. In front of 34,000 supporters in the nation’s capital, Wambach started her first of 29 major tournament games, which would yield 22 of her astonishing 184 goal haul across her career with her country. The striker would score in her next game against Nigeria but, little did Wambach know, her side was about to embark on a period of three successive World Cups without glory, unthinkable for a team that had lifted the trophy in front of their supporters four years previous.
Wambach increased her reputation globally 12 months later, at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where she contributed to four of the USA’s first five goals across the opening two games against Greece and Brazil. They would face Brazil in the final, a rematch of their group stage encounter and a game which would truly kick off the Abby Wambach phenomenon.
With the scores level at 1-1 in the 112th minute, Wambach rose highest from a corner to head home and earn her and her teammates a coveted gold medal. It was a moment that also signalled a change for the team as players who had been with the side since the first World Cup in 1991 – Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly – all stepped away after the gold medal success, ushering in a new generation of players led by the new world superstar Wambach. “It’s the least we can do for the women who have meant so much to us,” said Wambach on the success of the team. after the three legends played their final competitive match for their nation.
By the time the 2007 World Cup came around, Wambach was now well established as the star of the team and had a tally of 78 goals in 97 matches. Yet glory on the world stage would still escape her. Wambach was influential, scoring several goals on their run to the semi-final, but a hammering at the hands of Brazil, which saw head coach Greg Ryan drop regular goalkeeper Hope Solo, signalled more change for the team, as another World Cup slipped through their grasp at the semi-final stage.
Fate also began to unravel in misfortunate fashion for Wambach, the striker breaking her leg in a friendly match immediately before the 2008 Olympics, meaning she wouldn’t get the chance to defend her gold medal from four years previous.
Ten years on from her debut, Wambach was ready for another assault on the World Cup, this time with legendary Swedish coach Pia Sundhage at the helm. Aged 31, Wambach was one of the leaders of a team which included youngsters such as Kelley O’Hara, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, players who would walk in the footsteps on the path players such as Wambach set for them.
Over the period between her debut in 2001 and the end of the decade, Wambach said goodbye to a generation of players, brought success, and played a key role alongside other experienced players in ushering in a new generation who would eventually go on to not just replicate, but surpass the success of those who had gone before them.
A dramatic and memorable 122nd-minute diving header against Brazil at the 2011 World Cup was a moment which will forever be etched alongside the name Wambach, helping steer the team to a World Cup final. Despite another headed goal in stoppage time in the final against Japan, a cruel penalty shootout defeat ensured the USA were still looking for that elusive third star on the shirt.
Four years on, at 35, Wambach would play a more rotational role as Jill Ellis became the latest to try and steer the nation to glory. With the USA 5-2 up in the final and cruising finally towards glory, Wambach entered the field for the remaining few minutes and would lift the trophy alongside Christie Rampone, who, like Wambach, was at her final major tournament. For the latter, it had all been worth the wait.
The success would mark Wambach’s final competitive match with her country, walking away with two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup winners medal to boot. Alongside her two golds, the personal accolades and the scoring records shattered, Wambach could finally walk away with the ultimate success a player yearns for, something her younger teammates would replicate once again four years on.
With 184 international goals, she still lays claim to a record which may soon be broken, with Canada’s Christine Sinclair now sitting on 182 goals herself at the end of the 2019 World Cup. While the record will surely go, it doesn’t change the effect Wambach had on a team, a country, over the course of her career. She became a six-time winner of US Soccer’s Athlete of the Year and was named FIFA’s Player of the Year in 2012.
Her impact is still felt in her home city of Rochester, New York. In 2011 she was given a key to the city and 20 July was named ‘Abby Wambach Day’. After her second Olympic gold, the road leading down to the city’s Sahlen’s Stadium was renamed Wambach Way, while she would also receive a key to New York City itself after the 2015 World Cup success, the team becoming the first female team to get a ticker-tape parade as well as an invite to the White House to meet President Barack Obama.
If there was one sign of how Wambach has inspired the next generation, it was earlier this year, in a match between the USA and England before the 2019 World Cup. Each US player wore a shirt bearing the name of a woman they wanted to honour rather than their own, somebody who had inspired them. Alex Morgan chose the name Wambach.
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty