Tonight marks the final time U.S. Women’s National Team legend Abby Wambach will lace up her cleats and dust rubber pellets from her feet. I first saw Wambach play when her college squad, the University of Florida Gators, upset UNC for the NCAA title in 1998. While my dedication to the USWNT wavered over the years, Wambach’s never did, and with her retirement tonight she leaves the pitch a two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion. It was Wambach’s header in Brazilian Dive Time at the 2011 World Cup that brought me back to the WNT fold, so it seems fitting to focus on the head of one of the best to ever play the game. Enjoy.
Head and Shoulders Above the Rest: She’s the all-time leading goal scorer in international soccer. Ever. Of both genders. One hundred and eighty four, assuming (a bad idea) she doesn’t score tonight. Some may argue the USWNT plays gimmie games against CONCACAF foes and thus her total is padded. Doesn’t matter. Wambach doesn’t schedule the games. She just plays in them. And when she plays, she scores. A lot.
Head Games: In the 2012 Olympic semi-final against host Canada, one of the best soccer matches you will ever see, Wambach took advantage of a rarely called rule that states a goalkeeper can’t hold a ball for more than six seconds. So every time Canadian ‘keeper Erin McLeod snagged a shot or corralled a corner, Wambach started counting. Loudly. ONE. TWO. THREE. FOUR… sometimes as high as 12 or 13. And in doing so, she got into the head of Christiana Pedersen, badgering the ref until she called a delay of game foul on McLeod. That led to a free kick which led to a handball in the box which led to the crucial game-tying PK (taken by Wambach, of course) which helped lead to the win.
Headbanger: On the flip side of USWNT Olympic and World Cup glory is the team’s worst defeat - the biggest upset in women’s soccer history. In the 2010 CONCACAF semi-finals - that’s Olympic qualifying, folks - the USA lost to Mexico 1-2. One might think that would be memorable enough. But the image that (unfortunately) sticks with me is of Abby Wambach getting a bloody gash in her head stapled shut on the sidelines during added time so she could rush back in and try to help the team earn a draw. I’ll link to it here, but watch at your own risk. She is getting her head stapled.
Head in the Sand: One of the most frustrating parts of being a USWNT fan was watching Wambach downplay or downright ignore social issues such as gender equality and gay rights. While I firmly believe every person gets to write their own coming out story, I also believe there are people in positions of power who can take on more risk than others. As 2015 comes to a close Wambach can be lauded as a strong voice for equality (see: the ‘turf wars’ lawsuit vs. FIFA before the WWC, ill-timed as it was). It wasn’t so long ago, though, that Wambach was silent about her sexuality (saying after her wedding she didn’t need to come out because she’s never been closeted is not the same as being out, and yes it matters). And while Wambach owes me nothing, and this truly is a complex, layered topic, I always wished she’d take on a stronger role. Leaders need to lead. Brave people must step forward otherwise progress will never come. Wambach is one of the most famous athletes in the world and could have used her voice to enact change, something it seems she is coming to realize herself.
- Head for the Game: Wambach also has 75 career assists, and her ability to read a game has been lauded since her days at UF. In particular, her partnership with superstar Alex Morgan generated a gaggle of goals, and she’s assisted on goals by everyone from Joy Fawcett to Mia Hamm to Natasha Kai. And I’d give her the tertiary assist on the all-important Kelley O’Hara goal vs. Germany in the 2015 WWC semi-final. Wambach could dominate games in which she did not score.
- Head in the Clouds: Wambach’s unwavering support of the Grim Reaper of WPS, former magicJack team owner Dan Borislow - seriously, just Google "WPS lawsuit Borislow" - as he destroyed an entire soccer league and put her less-famous teammates’ health and careers in jeopardy, is a cloud that will hang over that head of hers.
Head Over Heels: if I could go back and count the number of times I’ve yelled or tweeted "GET UP, ABBY," it might rival her goals record. Wambach was a singular talent who could take over a game, but she was also a world-class diver. She perfected the fall-and-roll-and-look-exasperatedly-at-the-ref, and it worked all too well. There are other players and teams who need that type of chicanery to succeed; she did not.
- Head of the Class: Abby Wambach is a champion. She will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in every organization that calls. After 184 goals in 284 matches, one NCAA title, one WUSA title, a stapled head, a broken leg, a sucker-punch black eye, a heartbreak in Germany, a lifetime dream in Canada, two Olympic gold medals, and a 2012 FIFA Player of the Year award, there can be no doubt that tonight, as she heads off the pitch, soccer is saying goodbye to one of its greatest treasures. #ThankYouAbby