NEW ORLEANS — Abby Wambach sounds certain there will be no unforeseen circumstances luring her back onto the field next year at the Rio Games.
The face of U.S. women’s soccer for the past decade since Mia Hamm retired, Wambach insists she’s been at peace for a while now with her decision to make Wednesday night’s friendly against China in New Orleans her final international match.
She says she’s even been eagerly counting down the days.
"I can say this now," Wambach said before her last practice Tuesday evening in the Superdome. "After the game is going to be an amazing party and no better city in the world probably to do that than New Orleans."
"Watch out, Bourbon Street," she added. "It’s going to be a fun night."
Having been an emotional leader and a key second-half substitution for coach Jill Ellis during the United States’ World Cup triumph in Canada last summer, it seemed attainable for Wambach to stick it out one more year to perhaps capture a third Olympic gold medal in Rio to go with those she won in Athens in 2004 and London in 2012 (She sat out 2008 in Beijing with a broken leg).
But the 35-year-old Wambach, whose 184 national team goals make her the world’s all-time scoring leader in international competition, asserts that the team on which she has played since 2001 is as ready to move on with a new generation of players as she is to step aside.
That is why having a send-off game now, she said, was "not just the right thing for my friends, family and fans, but also for my teammates and myself and the coaches."
Assuming the U.S. advances through Olympic qualifying early next year to the Rio Games, Wambach said she is "going to be a fan and watch, for once, and it’s going to be awesome."
It is apparent Wambach’s American teammates will miss the stout, 5-foot-11 forward known for her passionate speeches and playing style, often highlighted by headed goals that are as exquisite as they are determined and powerful.
Yet, fellow U.S. players also respect her decision to retire.
"Abby said for a long time that the one thing she still hadn’t accomplished was a World Cup title," forward Alex Morgan recalled. "That was the one thing on her mind for the last eight years or so. So for her to cap off her journey with this team with a World Cup win — I don’t think there’s more of a high she could come off of. So we’re all happy for her in this moment and I think she realized it’s just time and we understand that."
Wambach said her mind still processes the game as well as ever, but her body no longer keeps up.
"Running and the game is not easy by any means. It’s evolved. It’s harder than it ever used to be. The standard is even higher and that’s the way it should be," Wambach said. "Your body just knows when it knows. … If I can’t be the best at what I do, it’s time for me to move on."
Recently, Wambach caught herself raising her voice at Ellis when the coach asked her how the squad would move on without her reassuring presence.
"You guys won the World Cup without me on the field," Wambach recalled herself telling Ellis. "Everybody needs to get that in their head. I didn’t play very many minutes and that’s a good thing, because evolutionarily speaking, that’s the way I’ve wanted this game to go. It is now better than I found it.
"There are now players that are better than I am that will take this game into the next decade," Wambach continued. "That’s something I’m really proud of and I’m proud of our coaches and U.S. Soccer for believing in this product and this program so that it can get better."
What’s next for Wambach?
She aims to become a catalyst for greater equality — be it for women in sports and the workplace, or for minority groups that have found opportunities limited.
"I’m not bashing U.S. Soccer here. I know that they have given and moved that needle further than any other country in the world," Wambach said. "But I also think that overall as a culture we have been imprinted on the fact that women make less money, get fewer opportunities."
Wambach, whose relatively tall, sturdy build is also ideal for a defender, only got her opportunity to become the world’s leading goal scorer after Ellis — back when she was the Under-20 National Team coach — relented on her idea to convert Wambach into a centre back.
When Wambach recounted that story Tuesday, Ellis smiled and interjected that nearly "190 goals or whatever later, I’ve been proven wrong."
So perhaps Wambach is well equipped to demonstrate what’s wrong with some long-enduring social conventions as well.