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USWNT: Wambach Retires in Rocky Transition

Tyler Kaufman/Icon Sportswire

Abby Wambach’s remarkable reign has come to an end. With 255 Women’s US National Team caps, and 184 international goals—a record number for both women and men in international play—two Olympic Golds and, most recently, the 2015 World Cup to her name, Abby Wambach is among the world’s most decorated athletes. On Wednesday, as she was subbed off in the 72nd minute, she took off her cleats, hugged her teammates, and crossed the touchline for the final time.

Abby departs the team, and the women’s game in general, in a conflicting moment. On the one hand, she walks away a champion, from a team with a newly-minted third star above the U.S. crest, and a trophy shield under their chins. She leaves a sport with not only more support in the stands, but also a better array of youth academies for women than it had when she won the NCAA title at the University of Florida.

And yet, the other hand holds for women’s soccer low wages and low-grade artificial turf, a broad glass ceiling and failed equality lawsuits. That Abby Wambach and the teams she captained have championed—in both a figurative and literal sense—women’s soccer is without question. That much remains to be done before the women’s game is on equal footing with the men’s is equally clear. Wambach, along with those who have grown to love her, will be hoping she can create further positive change now that she’s left the pitch.

On the (artificial) pitch itself, however, Wednesday’s 1-0 home loss to China showed that the reigning World Champions are far from an untouchable juggernaut. This match may have only been a friendly, but Jill Ellis and her squad would prefer to have momentum on their side as they prepare to embark on their next round of competitive fixtures, Olympic qualifying in February.

Granted, within the disappointing result this week, the fiery attacking force that is Alex Morgan was forced off due to injury, and even after her substitution, the USA created more chances than China. Moreover, the game plan was clearly ‘get Abby the ball,’ and with a more balance-minded attack the Americans may have found the back of the net once or twice.

December 16 - United States of America forward Abby Wambach (20) covers her face as she leaves the field after the Women's National Team Final Victory Tour match between the U.S. Women's National Team and China PR at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA. China defeated United States of America 1-0. (Photo Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)

December 16 – United States of America forward Abby Wambach (20) covers her face as she leaves the field after the Women’s National Team Final Victory Tour match between the U.S. Women’s National Team and China PR at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA. China defeated United States of America 1-0. (Photo Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)

But it’s the scoreline that matters most.

The loss marks the end of a remarkable unbeaten streak on home soil, unparalleled in international football. For a staggering 104 consecutive matches, the American women never lost at home—until Wednesday. The last time the USA lost on American soil, Wambach herself was the lone U.S. goalscorer, as the U.S. fell to Denmark 3-1 in 2004. In some sense, it’s fitting that the streak should come to an end at the same moment as Wambach’s career, considering that she was the team’s lynchpin throughout that 11-year unbeaten run.

If frustrating, and even historically so, the loss wasn’t without some bright spots. Meghan Klingenberg continued to impress on defense, not only winning the ball but, as she did in Canada this summer, pushing the team up in attack before being subbed off in the 78th minute. Perhaps more importantly, even without being able to force a goal, second half substitute Crystal Dunn looked to be the genuine article. Coming on in the 60th minute for Heather O’Reilly, Dunn’s energy on the ball and off clearly spurred the team on for the final half hour of the match.

Harrying opposing players when out of possession, and running at them when with it, Dunn was not starstruck by the occasion of playing alongside Wambach in the legendary striker’s final match. Having played for Washington Spirit both as a wide fullback and as an attacking winger, Dunn’s versatility is manifest in her playing style. Show a manager a player who can produce and score goals from a wide forward position, while also remaining committed to tracking back in order to defend, and you’ll likely find that name on the team sheet.

16 December 2015: Abby Wambach #20 of the United States takes off her captain band as she leaves the field for the final time in her career an exhibition game against China at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Tyler Kaufman/Icon Sportswire)

Who will carry the load of women’s soccer in the United States now that Wambach is gone? (Photo by Tyler Kaufman/Icon Sportswire)

Despite being listed as a defender on the official U.S. Soccer website, this season in NWSL, Dunn was a goal machine. She became the youngest player to win the league’s Golden Boot at 23 years old, having netted 15 times in 20 matches. Even though Dunn is experienced on defense,—especially following the USWNT back four’s impressive showing at the World Cup—it’s quite possible that Ellis envisions Dunn more as an attacking winger than a defender, evidenced by the fact that she chose to place Dunn and her attacking ability in midfield on Wednesday, replacing O’Reilly, rather than on defense.

And, at this moment, Dunn’s attacking prowess will be in high demand for the national team. Abby Wambach has hung up her cleats. Alex Morgan looked to have pulled her hamstring Wednesday night, and while there’s still no official word on the severity of the situation, it clearly wasn’t a quick-fix impact injury. What’s more, with Megan Rapinoe’s controversial ACL tear earlier this month—caused by poor field conditions, highlighting U.S. Soccer’s arguable disregard for the Women’s team, despite their World Championship—the United States might be without three of their most crucial attacking cogs come Olympic qualifying.

The retirement of a superstar always creates a power vacuum. The question is who will step in to fill it—and how fully. Despite the loss, despite the broken undefeated streak at home, Crystal Dunn showed us flashes of true quality against China, glimpses of her attacking potential, and her inerrant commitment to winning the ball back when lost.

Come February and the higher stakes of Olympic qualification, American fans will hope that Dunn can stride, goals in tow, from those glimpses of prowess onto the center of the international stage. And at this moment, more than ever, that stage is waiting for her.

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