Many numbers explain the significance of Abby Wambach to U.S. soccer. An incomplete list: 252 (national team appearances), 184 (goals scored, most ever), two (Olympic gold medals) and one (World Cup victories).
And now, only four more matches exist to tick those first two numbers upward. On Tuesday, the 35-year-old forward announced her retirement, effective Dec. 16.
Of course, Wambach's full impact on soccer -- on the entire sports world, actually -- cannot be quantified. She didn't just score goals; she scored the right goals at the biggest moments. And she didn't just play for 15 years; she was the centerpiece during perhaps the most crucial era, as the U.S. women's national team worked to prove it wasn't a one-hit wonder, that women's soccer had staying power.
But the timing of Wambach's career was important for another reason: She bridged the technological gap. When the Rochester, New York, native made her national team debut in 2001, the evolution of social media was still years away. The players depended on traditional media to tell their stories, to introduce them to the public. But first they had to give that media a reason to care. They had to win.
So back then, the U.S. team was mostly branded as a whole, each player necessarily focused, above all else, on the team results. Exceptions existed, of course, specifically for star forward Mia Hamm, whose brand transcended the sport. Still, Hamm occasionally requested some of her teammates join her on photo shoots, lest she seem to be singling herself out.
Wambach was introduced to this version of U.S. soccer. And she bought in.
The space is different now. And that's not to say winning isn't still the ultimate goal. It is. Every player understands that her personal brand is elevated when the team brand is elevated -- rising tide, etc., etc. A symbiotic relationship exists, mostly. But players now spend a significant amount of time building their personal brands. They post images on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr.
As Wambach expressed recently at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit, she's not a huge fan of Twitter. She knows it's important, that social media has provided an opportunity for female athletes to own their stories -- critical empowerment in a media climate that often neglects to tell them.
"Our team is so inspiring on so many levels because everybody in the world can literally look at our team and find themselves in one or two or three of the players on our team," Wambach said.
Defender Ali Krieger, speaking on the same panel, added: "You can relate to each and every one of us on a different level, and that's what social media has given us -- we can relate on a human level. We're not just a package deal. We're a team, but if you can relate better to one of us or another, you can work with that player."
That's great. But that's also a double-edged sword. Now, when players board a team bus, it's rarely a space to connect and talk with teammates, with everyone focused on their own smartphones and tablets. At the summit, Wambach acted out a scene she, and the rest of us, are all too familiar with: eyes down, thumbs twiddling, looks vacant. As on all teams, work must be done to bring all the different pieces together, to connect them and understand how they will all work together, how one can feed off the other, what must be prioritized, what must be sacrificed.
Wambach was good at doing this work. She always said she felt as if she was of both soccer generations, the 99ers and the new guard. She saw the ways in which the game had evolved, and the benefits of that evolution, and she also saw the ways in which advancements had unintended consequences, and tried to mitigate those.
The truth is, in the past few years, the impact Wambach had on the field was minimal. We saw that during this World Cup final, when she stepped onto the turf only for the final minutes, only to absorb the adoring roar of the sold-out crowd. But Wambach remained essential. She moved this team forward without forgetting its past.
So, who will do that now?