NEW ORLEANS — Abby Wambach walked off the field for the final time like a rock star — mic drop and all.
It sounded as if she was ready to party like one, too.
She wasn’t able to leave with a victory in her final game with the U.S. national team. China’s 1-0 victory on Wednesday night — the U.S. team’s first home loss in more than a decade — wasn’t going to diminish the triumphant nature of Wambach’s extraordinary career.
“Tonight is a celebration,” Wambach asserted. “The result, obviously, is annoying. It would be better if we had won, but the reality is I played in so many games. This result doesn’t shape or determine or define my career.”
Wambach said her teammates apologized profusely to her afterward, but she told them, “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Today wasn’t about getting a result.”
Wambach played into the 72nd minute, managing two threatening headers and a shot on goal from inside the penalty area before subbing out of a match for the final time.
“It’s kind of symbolic; I get 70 minutes and we don’t score a goal,” Wambach said, alluding to why it’s time for her, at 35, to retire.
The career scoring leader in international play — for men and women, with 184 goals— kicked off her cleats and hugged each teammate on the field before walking to the bench, smiling, to embrace her coaches and remaining teammates as the crowd chanted her name.
“I love this team,” Wambach said in comments delivered on the field to fans after the game. “It has been my pleasure and my honor to represent you all, the fans, for as long as I’ve been able to. … The future is so bright. These women are going to kill it.”
And she made it clear that, despite the loss, it was time to celebrate, saying, “Bourbon Street, watch out,” before dropping the microphone and walking off alone as her teammates waited behind, applauding with the rest of the crowd.
China scored in the 58th minute, when forward Wang Shuang volleyed in a bounding cross from Wang Shanshan.
The U.S., which won the women’s World Cup this summer, had gone 104 home games without losing since falling to Denmark in 2004.
Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm started that 3-1 loss Denmark in Philadelphia, while Wambach came in as a sub. The U.S. women had gone 92-0-12 since.
The Americans nearly tied China in the 87th minute when Lindsey Horan beat goalkeeper Zhao Lina, but Horan was ruled just a step offside when she received the pass from Christen Press.
That was the closest of several near misses.
Horan’s header forced a diving save by Lina in the 82nd minute. In the 84th minute, Carli Lloyd’s pass sent Press into the penalty area for a hard drive from the left side. But Press, who had subbed in for Wambach, shot it right at Lina. In added time, Emily Sonnett’s header went just over the cross bar.
The game wrapped up the U.S.’s nine-game “Victory Tour” in which it went 7-1-1, outscoring opponents 40-3.
Wambach got her 10th start of the year in her send-off game and also was designated the captain.
It was apparent from the outset that the Americans’ plan of attack was based in part on sending high crosses into the penalty area in hopes of connecting with Wambach for one of her trademark headers. She put two headers toward goal in the first 2 minutes, but both were blocked away by defenders.
“We really wanted to get her a goal. She did well, had a few chances,” Lloyd said. “It’s unfortunate to lose the match but at the same time this is a celebration of Abby and what she’s done for the team and I think that’s what matters.”
In the 30th minute, Wambach was able to sidestep a defender and attempt a lunging toe-poke from about 10 yards out, but couldn’t muster the power or placement to beat Lina.
Some of the greats in women’s soccer were drawn to the Superdome for Wambach’s 255th game with the national team, including Hamm and Brandi Chastain, who starred on the 1999 World Cup-winning squad.
A festive crowd of nearly 33,000 acknowledged Wambach at seemingly every opportunity.
Official US Soccer banners lining field-level walls and covering the tunnels to the locker rooms read, “Only one Abby.” And when the teams took the field shortly before kickoff, fans along the sideline held up yellow and black cards with the same slogan.
Before the starting lineups were announced, U.S. Soccer presented Wambach with a rendering of her famous, game-tying head-ball goal against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup. Just below the image was the word, “POWER.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis expressed confidence that the younger players for which Wambach paved the way will step up to fill the void as the team prepares to qualify for next summer’s Olympic Games in Rio. At the same time, she sounded certain she’d never coach another player quite like Wambach.
“She does transcend soccer. It’s not just about her, the player. It’s been her, the leader; her the advocate; her, the spokesperson,” Ellis said. “What she has ahead of her is going to be remarkable. As brilliant as a soccer player as she is, she’s an even better person.”
Notes: U.S. Forward Alex Morgan asked out of the game late in the first half after pulling up with what Ellis later said was an apparent hamstring pull in her right leg. … Wambach said she’s been invited to Switzerland by FIFA to take part in the world soccer body’s ongoing reforms and said she is eager to do so. “I’m all for it because I have opinions and I’m not afraid to say them.”