No player, no matter how great, is irreplaceable.
But Abby Wambach comes close.
There are all those goals, of course, her 184 in international play, more than anyone else, male or female.
There are the games she won in dramatic fashion, including her header against Brazil in the 122nd minute to force a shootout in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup and her header in overtime to clinch the gold medal in the Athens Olympics.
There are the other times, far too many to count, that Wambach carried the U.S. women, her size and ability in the air too much for opponents to contain.
And, off the field, there was her voice. Strong and steadfast, she was tireless in her efforts to raise the profile of the women’s game and get equal treatment for those who play it.
Take all that together, and no other player — certainly none in recent memory — has made as big an impact on soccer as Wambach.
“I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I don’t have words to describe that, how much better we are. The federation, obviously the team, the sport and our society are better for having had Abby Wambach in a national team uniform,” US Soccer President Sunil Gulati said.
When Wambach leaves the field after her final game Wednesday, she’ll take a piece of the Americans’ soul with her.
For more than a decade, she was the U.S. women’s team. No player was more feared by the rest of the world, her mere presence in front of the goal dictating the game plan for opposing defenses. No player was more recognizable, her outgoing and engaging personality paving the way for the crossover celebrity status of Alex Morgan and Hope Solo in ways Mia Hamm never could.
“She came at the perfect time,” said Christie Rampone, who has played alongside Wambach longer than anyone else and is one of her closest friends.
The U.S. team that won the 1999 World Cup provided a watershed moment not only for women’s sports but also women in general. Those Americans showed the country — and the rest of the world, to a degree — that it was cool for women to be strong, powerful and confident. That women really could hold their own in whatever arena they chose.
But the beauty of those ’99ers was that they were a team in the truest sense of the word.
Hamm might have been the world’s best player, a prolific scorer the likes of which had never been seen. But she was never comfortable being the center of attention, preferring to be one of the crowd. So that ’99 team was celebrated as the sum of its parts: Mia. Brandi. Foudy. Akers. Lill.
By the early 2000s, however, they were moving on to the next phase of their lives. And it was left to Wambach to fill the void.
Wambach didn’t seek the spotlight. But when you’re the youngest of seven children, you have no choice but to make yourself seen and heard, and she couldn’t help but carry that over into the other aspects of her life.
“I just think Abby is real. That’s what I hope everybody sees through her,” Rampone said. “She truly is, ‘What you see is what you get.’ She’s the most real person I’ve ever been around. Abby is Abby, and she’s one of a kind.”
Wambach’s physical abilities and skill might have made her the Americans’ focal point. She won two Olympic gold medals — it would be three if not for the broken leg she suffered right before Beijing in 2008 — along with the World Cup title this summer.
But the 2012 FIFA Player of the Year soon realized that the critical role she played on the field gave her a platform and a responsibility off of it, too.
She promoted her sport every chance she got, often thanking reporters for covering the Americans’ games. She encouraged girls to be fearless and not worry what others might think of them. She criticized FIFA and her own federation for not giving the women’s game the same resources and support it did to the men’s game.
And when female players around the world sued FIFA over its decision to stage the2015 World Cup on artificial turf, something it never would have considered for the men’s event, it was Wambach who led the fight.
The women might have lost their turf war for the 2015 tournament, but the outcry and the bad publicity that followed forced FIFA to concede it would never happen again.
“Players leaned on her to help grow the game,” Rampone said. “She’s powerful. And when she speaks, people listen.”
Age and the ferocity with which she played exacted a toll on Wambach, to the point that she was used mostly as a reserve in this year’s World Cup. But it was evident how much she has meant — to the Americans and the game overall — when she and Rampone were given the honor of being the last to hoist the trophy.
A World Cup champion at last, she could walk away knowing she had given everything she had to her sport.
“Abby always said she wanted to leave the game in a better place than she found it,” Rampone said.
There will be other prolific scorers, other players who will move the game forward. But there will never be another Abby Wambach.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.