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Oct. 28, 2015 — An appreciation: Abby Wambach, forward, U.S. women’s soccer team

One in an occasional series.

In 2003, the effect that Abby Wambach had on her U.S. women’s national teammates during the World Cup was such that FIFA penned an entire technical report detailing her potential impact on women’s soccer for years to come.

In contrast with all of the high crimes and other misdemeanors that can be laid at FIFA’s feet, this is one thing they got right.

For a decade and a half, Mary Abigail Wambach was a force of nature on the pitch. Her 5-foot-11 frame was thrown fearlessly into the air on countless occasions to get a telling touch towards goal. Her aggressiveness was noted at the age of three, when, after scoring 27 goals in her first three recreational games, she was moved to a boys’ team in order to improve more quickly.

And did she ever. After a storied career at Rochester Our Lady of Mercy (N.Y.), she matriculated to the University of Florida, and as a freshman, played on the Gators’ 1998 NCAA Division I Women’s College Cup team. The team represented a high-water mark when it came to building a successful program in a non-traditional area — something which would be replicated a few years later by, amongst others, the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team.

After college, Wambach was a first-round draft pick of the Washington Freedom of the Women’s United Soccer Association. She was asked to carry the team because of a bone lesion that Mia Hamm was nursing slowly back to fitness. The Freedom managed to win its way to the the Founders’ Cup Final in 2002, but fell short. A year later, Wambach would score a goal in overtime that not only gave the team the win, but it also represented the last golden goal to be scored in a FIFA-sanctioned league; sudden-death overtime was eliminated that summer.

It was during that 2003 season when U.S. women’s national team coach April Heinrichs left Wambach off the roster for a number of matches, including the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the 2003 Algarve Cup.

It was during this period when Wambach was told this by Heinrichs, herself a U.S. legend from the 1991 team: “Don’t wait until June or July to do well,” she is reported to have said. “By then, it might be too late.”

In September 2003, Wambach put those words to great use. She led the U.S. in scoring at the relocated FIFA Women’s World Cup, causing sportswriters to heap some hyperbole that is reserved for the Jordans and Mannings and Ruths of the world:

“She is a one-woman wrecking crew, a linebacker in a soccer jersey.”

“She was everywhere, hurling herself at every ball, crashing through the Norwegian underbrush like a moose run amok.”

“Chances are she has run over them like a Mack truck and left her license plate number on them.”

“I would watch Abby Wambach play any sport, anytime, anywhere. I’d watch her throw her elbows around under the basket. I’d watch her smash a softball over the outfield wall. I’d even watch her try to land a triple lutz.”

“Wambach looked like a fast-moving, Pac-Man character…”

This was back in 2003, mind you. She was just starting a career that would stretch to 252 caps and 184 goals, the latter by far the most ever scored in international games by a male or a female.

Olympic gold medals would follow, including the 112th-minute header that gave the Americans the win in the 2004 final. But late in her career, she knew that the opportunities for her to win a World Cup were diminishing.

Wambach had experienced her share of heartbreak in FIFA Women’s World Cups. In 2003, the States couldn’t overcome Germany in the semifinals and lost 3-0. Wambach never made the trip to China for the 2007 WWC because of a broken leg suffered in a warmup match.

In 2011, in Germany, Wambach pulled off one of the great feats in U.S. soccer history. A prime example of the United States’ ability to come through with clutch goals in major competitions, she would score off a Megan Rapinoe header in the 122nd minute of play to draw level with Brazil in the quarterfinals. The States would win the penalty shootout, but couldn’t overcome Japan in penalty kicks in the final.

So, headed into the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Wambach sacrificed her club career to save what she had left to help the Americans win the World Cup in Vancouver. She was not only able to bring a physical presence, but she brought a coaching sensibility.

Wambach had become the player-coach of majicJack FC of Women’s Professional Soccer in 2011 after a behind-the-scenes meltdown involving controversial team owner Dan Borislow necessitated his suspension from the league. And it was during halftime the June 26, 2015 quarterfinal against China that Wambach delivered a speech for the ages that propelled the Americans to a 1-0 win.

Wambach, thanks to her inspiration, a great U.S. defense, and Carli Lloyd, would not be denied a World Cup and a winner’s medal in Canada.

But as much as Wambach has meant to the sporting world, she has also been a fixture in American popular culture. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the summer of 2015 — a summer when the rights of gay people to legally marry was affirmed by the Supreme Court. After the final whistle blew, there was Wambach, running over to the supporters and embracing her spouse — her lawfully-wedded spouse, Sarah Huffman.

Wambach didn’t need another gold-medal run for 2016 in order to burnish her reputation, gain more endorsements, or prove to anyone else that she is amongst the greatest ever to lace up a pair of boots.

After years of wear and tear on her body, I’m glad she realized that.

For club, for country, and for culture, Abby Wambach is only matched by the likes of Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens.

And the game is not going to be the same without her.

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