USWNT braced for new chapter as Wambach caps career

Abby Wambach's retirement means the U.S. must turn the page on a glorious era as it prepares for next summer's Olympics, writes Thomas Floyd.

WASHINGTON — Abby Wambach fielded a question about her future with a characteristic dose of coyness and charisma.

"I have given a lot of thought to it," Wambach said at the White House on Tuesday, after a ceremony honoring the U.S. national team for its Women's World Cup win. "I think in the coming days, weeks, months, I'll let you guys know — maybe hours."

That seemingly tongue-in-cheek tag turned out to be Wambach showing her hand. Three hours later, the U.S. Soccer press release landed: "Abby Wambach announces retirement from international soccer."

Thus ends arguably the greatest career in the sport's history. It also resolves the most pressing question hounding the U.S. program since the Americans claimed a third World Cup title on a smoggy July afternoon in Vancouver.

Wambach, of course, is a legend. The numbers are staggering: 252 caps, 184 goals, two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup crown. Her heart and grit can't be quantified.

Yet at 35 years old, Wambach has lost a step. That much was evident in the Americans' improvement once she stepped out of the starting lineup in Canada, with Carli Lloyd's move to a higher position giving the U.S. crispness and mobility it lacked with Wambach up top.

She still played an important part in bringing home that trophy, appearing in all six matches and scoring the lone goal in a group-stage win over Nigeria. But with new prospects champing at the bit and the Olympics featuring smaller, 18-player squads, the question was obvious: Would the U.S. be better off with Wambach gracefully stepping aside?

For a while, Wambach seemed to waver. Now she has saved coach Jill Ellis from making a brutally difficult roster decision next summer, and allowed the U.S. team to forge ahead with a new identity. She also timed the announcement to perfection, making sure not to overshadow the recent finales of teammates Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny and Lauren Holiday.

Although Wambach won't play her final match until a friendly against China on Dec. 16 in New Orleans, that trio already said goodbye to the national team. So Tuesday's White House visit may have marked the final time that all 23 players from the World Cup squad were in the same place.

It's a special group that, as President Barack Obama put it, "taught all of America's children that 'playing like a girl' means you're a badass." Obama also took time to laud Wambach for "showing us all how far we've come, on and off the field, by sharing a celebratory kiss with her wife" after the World Cup final.

"It's bittersweet," Wambach told Goal USA at the White House. "Obviously we're so happy to be here to celebrate this. For it to maybe be one of the last times that all 23 of us are together, I guess for me it's pretty appropriate that it be here in the White House, meeting the president and being behind him while he gives an amazing speech, singling out a few players on the team for stuff that may not even have to do with the game.

"It's so important because we do represent the country, and it's not just about playing — it's about who we are off the field."

Now it's time for a new generation to take that mantle of on-the-field prowess and off-the-field class. Rising talents Crystal Dunn, Emily Sonnett and Lindsay Horan have already gotten auditions, with Ellis looking to bolster a young core led by World Cup standouts Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian.

The Olympics are only 10 months away, and the likes of Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn do remain. But make no mistake — with Wambach joining Holiday and Co. in retirement, 2016 marks the start of a new chapter.

It's time to turn the page.

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