There will probably never be another player quite like Abby Wambach, who retired from soccer this week after scoring 184 international goals. She may well be the last of her kind, and the U.S. women’s national team will have to go a new direction without her up front.
Wambach was more technically gifted than most gave her credit for, but the classic Abby goal was a simple play: Wambach outmuscling a defender to head a long cross into the net. She scored 184 goals for the U.S., and I can find no evidence she ever scored one from outside the penalty area; most were scored from about 3 yards away. She was a classic center-forward, and since 2001, the shortest route to the back of the opposition’s net ran through Wambach’s forehead.
Wambach retires amid change for women’s soccer. For one, the continued growth of the National Women’s Soccer League soon will mean that the national team is no longer the only important team in America. Already, we’ve seen midfielder Crystal Dunn fight her way back into the national team lineup, on the strength of her MVP performance for the Washington Spirit this season.
The day is coming when someone like striker Alex Morgan will be known as “the Orlando City forward, who plays for the U.S. national team,” and not the other way around. Wambach, who didn’t even play in the NWSL last year in order to rest up for international duty, is likely to be the last unattached player to play for the national team.
For another, the development of the game in other countries will mean less space, and less physical dominance, for the USWNT. At the 2015 World Cup, the Americans were led by Carli Lloyd’s technical brilliance, not Wambach’s imposing presence.
As smaller European nations and South American countries and African countries begin to take soccer more seriously, and as countries like France and Germany start to lean on the support they’ve given their men’s teams, the women’s game will move along and get better.
Wambach, starting her career in 2015, wouldn’t find the acres of space and porous opposition defenses that she sometimes benefited from. Her final game, a 1-0 loss to China, was the USWNT’s first home loss since 2004, and perhaps also a harbinger of things to come for the U.S.
This shouldn’t take away from Wambach’s career. She scored the same number of goals with her head, 77, that Pelé scored in his entire international career. Take away every single one of her headers, and she’d still be third on the all-time scoring list for the United States.
There will probably never be another like her because the game is changing, but there will also never be another like her because of her talent. She’s the greatest goal-scorer international soccer has ever known, and for American fans, she will be missed.
Soccer short takes
• Minnesota United already is announcing some of its 2016 preseason plans. In February, the Loons will travel to Portland, the MLS Cup winners, for a preseason tournament that also includes MLS teams Vancouver and Chicago.
• On Thursday, Chelsea fired manager Jose Mourinho, not quite halfway through its attempt to defend its Premier League title — a stunning failure. Chelsea won just four of its first 16 games this season, and Mourinho went on a series of bizarre postgame rants as things got worse, including blaming his players for letting him down.
• Tyler David, who starred at Lakeville North and for the Minnesota Thunder Academy before playing soccer at St. Louis University, is one of 59 players who were invited to the MLS Combine that starts Jan. 7. It’ll give David a chance to show his skills ahead of the MLS SuperDraft, which takes place Jan. 14.
• Another local product, Bloomington native Jackson Yueill, was named to the All-Far West first team, another accolade after an impressive freshman season at UCLA. Yueill, who has played for the USA youth national teams, may be a candidate to make the jump to MLS before his college eligibility is up.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at FC Köln, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. The Bundesliga’s monthlong winter break begins following this weekend’s games, and for the first time, Bayern Munich has looked slightly wounded at the top of the table. Dortmund is five points back and hoping to be closer at the season’s halfway point; this feels like a must-win for Dortmund.
Premier League: Sunderland at Chelsea, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBC Sports. With Jose Mourinho gone from the club, perhaps Chelsea finally can get itself back on track for the year. The Blues have one of the most talented rosters in the Premier League, but it felt like Mourinho’s toxic presence was weighing everyone down; a home game against fellow strugglers Sunderland is just the ticket.
Premier League: Liverpool at Watford, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. Don’t look now, but Watford has not only won three games in a row; it’s gone ahead of Liverpool in the standings. Liverpool has endured two disappointing weeks after an impressive spell and needs to get back on its feet as the busy Christmas period begins. A trip to Watford, though, does not look easy.
Serie A: Lazio at Inter Milan, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Preseason favorite Juventus has won six consecutive league games after a terrible start, climbing back into the title race. Inter has a four-point lead at the top of the Serie A table, but its lead over Juventus — now down to six points — feels smaller every week. Dropping points to Lazio would likely shrink the gap even more.