Following the US Women’s National Team’s visit to the White House in celebration of their 2015 Women’s World Cup title, veteran striker and international goal-scoring record-holder Abby Wambach announced her retirement from soccer effective the end of 2015. For some, this was cause for many tears; for others, celebration. This is because her career has been a complex series of positives and negatives, both on and off-the-field. I hope my thoughts here are even-handed, maybe even charitable, but don’t expect them to be neutral.
Wambach changed to an extent the way the game came to be played. Prior to her, the air dimension of goal-scoring wasn’t as prominent and teams succeeded more so on overall talent level than one-on-one match-ups. She forced the opposition to focus heavily on her because of her aerial prowess, something that is still useful at times in the modern game that eventually passed her by in recent times. Her place as “face of the WNT” in the gap between the 99ers/Mia Hamm and Alex Morgan cannot be underestimated, which adds to that aforementioned complexity. Despite this place at the fore of the public’s consciousness, she was absent from the program’s “rise from the ashes” moment (winning gold at the 2008 Olympics after the debacle surrounding the 2007 Women’s World Cup) due to a broken leg suffered just prior to the Beijing Games. The physical nature of her game brought on a decline in form that became evident over the last three years and, looking forward after the 2012 Olympics, is why I felt she should have exited the stage following the London Games or transitioned into a less-prominent role if she were to be part of the 2015 Women’s World Cup squad.
Her off-the-field missteps (to be kind) ultimately make her legacy complicated. Her undying support for magicJack owner Dan Borislaw in the face of mounting evidence regarding his handling of the organization and run-ins with WPS management opened the eyes of some to the selfish side of Abby. The relentless chase of Mia Hamm’s goal-scoring record through the first half of 2013 magnified it for some but was also fueled or perhaps enabled by a USSF leadership that has always viewed the Women’s National Team as part cash cow, part empowerment movement. Wambach being “forced” to prop up a Rochester franchise in NWSL (under the auspices of being a hometown hero) that maybe shouldn’t have entered the league at its founding gave her tremendous leverage in the future (same can be said for a LOT of the WNT players and NWSL’s birth, because it changed the calculus of what should have been a natural transition of the program following the London Olympics and the hiring of a new coach), which a large segment of the women’s soccer fan community believes was used to have Tom Sermanni dismissed as national team coach in April of 2014 and to keep her front-and-center in the program when her on-field play no longer warranted it. In the end, I feel that the latter years of the Abby/USSF relationship was akin to co-dependency, where each side used the other to get what they wanted, regardless of the future consequences.
I want to give a shout-out to Stephanie Yang (@thrace on Twitter and co-host of 2 Drunk Fans) for penning probably the most balanced piece I have read on Wambach’s legacy and career, one which I hope is able to cut through what seems to be a prevailing view of Wambach only through the lens of her on-field accomplishments. Maybe my piece helps in that way, maybe not. For me, Abby Wambach’s legacy is defined by remembering the accomplishments (184 goals, two Olympic gold medals, Women’s World Cup title) while not forgetting how some of those came to pass, be it by her own choices/volition or through the work of others. In short, complicated.