NEW ORLEANS -- The soccer world knew there would come a moment during the second half of Wednesday's game between the United States and China when the fourth official would hold up the electronic board used to indicate substitutions and Abby Wambach would walk off the field.
It just wasn't supposed to be a strategic substitution.
It wasn't supposed to be in an effort to stave off defeat. It wasn't supposed to matter.
But if what happened in sports was always and only what was supposed to happen, the career that came to a close in a stunning but ultimately meaningless defeat wouldn't have meant nearly as much as it did. There was no script that called for Abby Wambach to score more goals than any person who ever played the sport. The potential for failure existed each and every time she laced up her cleats and stepped on the field.
Right up until she unlaced those cleats, tossed them to the bench and walked off the field in her socks when that moment arrived in the 72nd minute.
For the first time in more than a decade, since a month before Mia Hamm played her final game at the conclusion of another victory tour, the United States lost on home soil. The visitors cast for much of the night as the team against which the United States was trying to cross the ball to Wambach, China turned the tables and turned a well-struck cross and a slight deflection into a 59th-minute goal and a 1-0 win that ended the host's 104-match home unbeaten streak.
It was the U.S.'s first loss at home since a 3-1 defeat against Denmark in 2004, one of only two times in Wambach's career that the Americans lost a game in which she scored. It was the first shutout loss at home since a 3-0 loss against Germany in the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup.
The end of streaks that long matter historically. But not as much as the end of something else.
As the cameras stayed on her in the moments after the game, as they had tracked her more or less since she walked off the bus and across the field to the locker room before the game, Wambach pointed to her face, specifically the ends of her lips then pulled into a smile.
"Today wasn't about getting a result," Wambach said. "It was about celebrating, not just my career but the chances that I've had with all my other teammates and the time that I've spent with them."
She wasn't alone in that sentiment.
"Tonight was about something bigger than a result, in my opinion," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.
The United States spent much of the match playing as if what it was about making sure Wambach scored the 185th goal of her career. Three times in the first three minutes they put the ball on her head via crosses and corners. The pace barely slowed from there. Wambach said both before and after the game that she hadn't trained at a regular level as her career wound down in recent weeks, but her teammates ran her ragged in search of a goal.
"I love my teammates for wanting to give me the sendoff that we all envisioned, but I think it's kind of symbolic," Wambach said. "You get 70 minutes, and we don't score a goal. For me, it's like, OK, it's time to step away. The symbolism in it for me is amazing."
Two of the best chances came in quick succession in the 27th and 30th minutes. But in the first instance, she couldn't control her first touch off a cross from Heather O'Reilly and lost the window of opportunity to shoot. On the second, her touch was true, nifty even as she moved around a Chinese defender, but there was nothing left but a toe poke corralled by the keeper.
It wasn't Kobe Bryant shooting 30 percent or Peyton Manning throwing looping passes, but what once was there in a manner unlike any other woman in the world simply wasn't anymore.
"It's harder than it ever used to be; the standard is even higher," Wambach said the day before her final game. "And that's the way it should be. Your body just knows when it knows. Your mind is at the right speed, but your body just isn't capable of doing what it was capable of doing even three years ago. That's the little difference. I wasn't able to muster that 'it' factor or that 5 percent more than I needed to have to be one of the best in the world."
So up went the board and off came Wambach -- replaced, posterity will note, by Christen Press.
When Mia Hamm played her final game for the United States on Dec. 9, 2004, it was a footnote in many of the stories that Wambach scored two goals in a 5-0 win against Mexico. Hamm was credited with two assists but was unable to add to her then-record goal total.
With Wambach looking on, it would again be left to the next generation to provide the goals.
Cue the symbolism yet again.
It wasn't exactly the most promising omen, for those inclined to such things, when Alex Morgan pulled up awkwardly while chasing a ball down the right flank in the first half, then minutes later stopped for good, Wambach's arm draped across her shoulder as they walked together across the field toward a waiting substitute. Able to produce goals when healthy at a rate only slightly off the pace set by Wambach, Morgan has been betrayed by her body far more often than slowed by opponents. While Ellis termed it only a possible hamstring pull and Morgan appeared in good spirits after the game, she would not be the one to pick up the flag on this night.
Instead, in the 87th minute, Press slipped a pass through defenders to play in Lindsey Horan, seen as a potential cornerstone and Wambach replacement for the future.
Horan guided the ball past the keeper; the bench, including Wambach, leapt to their feet; and the crowd of more than 30,000 roared -- but in all cases only for the length of time required to notice the assistant referee's flag held aloft to signal that Horan was offside, if but barely.
"When I saw the ball go in the back of the net, I was so happy," Horan said. "It was such an emotional thing for me because we really wanted to win that game and get that goal for Abby. I was so excited about that -- I run to Christen and then we see the flag go up, and everything just gets shut down."
A gifted young player who skipped college to play professionally with one of the best teams in Europe at Paris St. Germain, Horan literally grew up watching Wambach. She was 7 years old when the latter first played for the national team. She is used to the comparisons, even if she feels they aren't entirely reflective of different skill sets. More importantly, she valued Wambach taking the younger player under her wing when Horan first joined the national team.
Living overseas in a country where soccer rules but women's soccer is still finding a foothold, she understood better the impact Wambach had on a sport.
"Everyone knows who Abby Wambach is," Horan said of France. "That's really cool for me because you go into other countries and they know who the big players are over here. My coaches always asked about her. My teammates, they knew who she is. And more so, they know what type of person she is. Everyone knows what type of person she is and what kind of role model she is.
"And that's really cool for me to see."
In the closing seconds of extra time, a cross from the left side sliced through the air. Delivered from roughly the same spot as a ball Megan Rapinoe struck late in extra time of a World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil four years ago, this one found the head of Emily Sonnett in the box. But the ball's flight wasn't quite as true and Sonnett's position not quite as perfect as Wambach's on that fateful day. The header cleared the crossbar and sailed harmlessly away.
And so the Wambach era came to a close. In defeat but not despair.
If winning was easy, this team wouldn't matter as much as it does.
If scoring goals was easy, Wambach wouldn't be a legend.
A video that played in the stadium during halftime featured Wambach talking about how some of the biggest losses of her life shaped her experience in the sport. This wasn't one of those. This is a result that will matter only as a footnote about the end of an unbeaten streak.
But it was a reminder that nothing in sports is guaranteed, which only makes what Wambach accomplished in the past 14 years all the more amazing.
"I think that the best part of this team is that the winning and losing is kind of part of the search," Wambach said. "What happens when you do lose? How do you face that? What character does the team have? What's the environment? ... I think this loss tonight was the first time we've lost on U.S. soil in a pretty long while.
"Fitting, I would say."
And in its own way, reason to smile.