As Abby Wambach Retires, U.S. Women's National Team Must Find New Voice

Abby Wambach retires (3:45)

Abby Wambach sits down with Julie Foudy to reflect on her amazing career, her decision to retire from the game of soccer and what's next for the 35-year old. (3:45)

NEW ORLEANS -- Abby Wambach's most surprising words during the final pre-match press conference of her career were not those revealing that U.S. coach Jill Ellis once tried to make a center back out of a much younger and less-than-fit Wambach on a youth national team.

Although there was that.

No, as Wambach talked about the timing of her retirement announcement and not wanting the national team's ongoing World Cup victory tour to morph into her personal farewell tour, these were the words that arched the eyebrows of anyone who paid attention to the past 14 years.

"I thought it would have been kind of cool just to say nothing and then leave," Wambach said.

If Wambach could slip quietly into the night, there would be no career on which the sun now sets.

Wednesday's game against China is Wambach's final opportunity to add to an international-best 184 goals. The game also marks her final appearance of a national team career that began against Germany on Sept. 9, 2001. Whether she ranks among the greatest players who ever took the field, Wambach accomplished the sport's objective more than anyone in its history.

Wednesday will not be her final opportunity to spark a conversation with her words, intentionally or not. It is entirely possible she did that more than any other woman who wore the U.S. national team uniform.

No one ever scored goals and mixed words like Wambach. She produced both in volume.

And while the United States proved in the Women's World Cup it is ready and mostly able to move on without her goals, it is not as clear who will replace the words and the passion. It isn't clear who will say what needs to be said.

We lose the greatest threat to goalkeepers. And the greatest threat to filters.

"What Abby has taught me through the years is to be bold, to be authentic, to be brave," midfielder Heather O'Reilly said. "That's how she has inspired me, and that's how she has inspired a lot of us. She dreams big. She speaks big. Everything she does is big.

"And I think that that really filters down amongst the team and amongst her friends to, whatever you're doing, just be bold about it. Whether it's sports, whether it's something outside of sports, if you live with passion and you live with authenticity and you live with boldness, good things are going to happen."

That sentiment is both unequivocally sincere and duly deferential. No doubt Wambach inspired her during more than a decade together on the national team, but O'Reilly never lacked boldness or authenticity. Nor purpose. The charity organization Right to Play lists two members of the national team among its athlete ambassadors: Wambach and O'Reilly. That isn't because of Wambach; it's because O'Reilly believes the sport that took her around the world can help change the lives of children in some of the globe's most disadvantaged areas.

If we don't highlight that, it's our fault. She shouldn't need a bullhorn.

Or take a small moment that occurred in the early days of the World Cup in Winnipeg. After Megan Rapinoe fielded several questions about an upcoming match, training and the routine of the tournament, a young man standing at the side of the room asked for her thoughts on how Metis youth face social and economic hardships. (Metis youth are descendants of Canada's aboriginal peoples and European fur traders that make up a substantial minority group in Manitoba.) With little more hesitation than any of her other answers, Rapinoe mentioned a conversation she had about the general subject, admitted not knowing all the details and expressed an interest in learning more. She wasn't in New Orleans to ask, but it wouldn't be a surprise if she did.

Make no mistake: Without Wambach, the national team will not lack thoughtful minds or social actors. It isn't losing its conscience.

But it is losing the person who didn't answer carefully, whose instinct wasn't to defer and who was most likely to speak out on any topic, be it sociological or soccer, and cause people to take notice because of her mainstream profile.

In the past year alone, Wambach essentially said too many of her teammates feared big moments, risked sanction for comments that suggested bias on the part of a referee (she apologized) and drew criticism for appearing to blame some of the national team's goal-scoring struggles early in the World Cup on the artificial surfaces in Canada. But her profile as part of a lawsuit also helped shine a light on the ridiculousness of FIFA staging the showcase tournament on something other than grass. And simply by living her life and celebrating the World Cup victory with her wife, she stood in needed contrast to the homophobia still too present.

And the year isn't even over yet.

"I think that I'm just obnoxious in a lot of ways, on a lot of levels," Wambach said, her tongue perhaps only partly in cheek, when asked why she used her voice the way she did time and again. "I use my voice because I know that when you're the youngest at a dinner table, the loudest person usually gets heard. I learned that at a pretty young age [with seven siblings]."

Teammate Alex Morgan said, "She's one of the faces that people recognize all over the world, not only all over this country, but all over the world. She had a special talent in heading, and she perfected it, and I think that's something that I looked at to try and follow in her footsteps. 'How can I contribute to this team?' And Abby knew what she gave to this team, and now it's time for people to step up [and fill] the leadership role that she was in."

That is true for Morgan. Her personality, her public sensibilities, will never be those of Wambach, nor should she be asked to read those lines. Morgan will always have a filter. But in recent times, with the issue of substandard hotels for visiting teams in National Women's Soccer League and substandard artificial turf at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii last week, Morgan has demonstrated both clout and the willingness to employ it. And as the product of a new generation, she has tools at her disposal through platforms such as social media to spread the words she chooses to more people than ever before.

Near the end of her time in front of the microphone Tuesday, Wambach grew impassioned as she spoke about wanting to push harder on matters of equality, that the fog of being in the middle of a soccer career obscured some of the worst inequalities she feels need be addressed.

Her voice isn't going anywhere. The national team just needs to find its own now.

"As loud as I can be, and as obnoxious as I can be on the field," Wambach said, "significance is really what this team is about. And I think that we transcend the sport."

In her case, it was never just about the goals. It was about the words, too; big, bold, brave, sometimes wrong and often messy.

Walk quietly into the night? Not a chance.