Abby Wambach didn't hang up her cleats so much as she threw them away. She pulled them off and cast them aside before even stepping off the field for the final time. Wambach was substituted in the 72nd minute of her 255th appearance for the United States women's national team, in which she failed to extend her world record and score her 185th goal against China in New Orleans on Wednesday.
In her teammates' eagerness to get the greatest goal scorer in international soccer history – man or woman – a final, fitting hoorah, they forgot to beat China. The visitors, who had fallen to the U.S. 2-0 on Sunday, spoiled the party with a 1-0 victory to end the Americans' 104-game undefeated run on home soil.
Wang Shuang's 58th-minute goal, which took a big deflection off Meghan Klingenberg, ended a streak of 92 wins and 12 ties without losing on American turf, dating back to Nov. 6, 2004.
It was the Americans' first loss to China in 26 games and their first loss to anybody in 24 games.
That made for an awkward ending to what was supposed to be a going away party for Wambach, wrapping up the sometimes troubled 10-game Victory Tour to mark the Women's World Cup title claimed last summer.
Wambach managed not to cry during all the pre-game hubbub, the announcements, the proclamations, the deification of one of the greatest female athletes ever. That wouldn't have been like her, after all. She built a career on her transcendent talent, but also her grittiness and her leadership both vocal and physical.
Once the game began, her teammates pelted balls at her at every opportunity, although the through balls on the ground were out of her reach and the aerial balls got gobbled up by the Chinese double coverage around her. Wambach, by her own admission, wasn't entirely match fit.
Still, she got a header on Heather O'Reilly's service but the signature nod was cleared off the line. Later, Wambach cut away from a defender, then tried to poke the ball past goalkeeper Zhao Lina with the outside of her right foot. But it didn't have enough power or direction on it.
When partner-in-goals Alex Morgan picked up a knock before halftime, Wambach walked her off the field. They had an arm around each other's hips. But even with the promising young Lindsay Horan entering the fray, the Americans didn't get any more dangerous. China knew just what was going to happen on each play. High ball to Wambach; through ball to Wambach. It didn't work.
Shuang got the goal on a very rare Chinese foray forward and the U.S. realized it was in trouble.
Wambach finally got her head on another free kick, putting it into the path of Carli Lloyd, but her finish went right at the untroubled Lina. Then, in the 71st minute, Wambach watched as her number 20 flashed up on the fourth official's scoreboard. She took off her shoes, threw them to the sideline and hugged each of her teammates in the middle of the field, before walking off to a standing ovation.
Horan seemed to have equalized in the 87th minute, but her goal was called offside by inches. And then China celebrated like it had just won the World Cup.
It was a shame for Wambach's big night to be tainted by the loss. For few people of either sex have meant so much to their sport, or sports in general, as Wambach has. She scored goals and won things and spoke eloquently and thoughtfully, carrying herself all the while with exemplary grace and professionalism. A role model beyond reproach. If she never quite gained the mainstream appeal of Mia Hamm, whose all-time scoring record she broke, she was a more willing pitchwoman for her sport, an advocate as much as an athlete, who never missed a chance to spread the good word.
On the day of her retirement, Gatorade debuted a commercial in which Wambach implored fans of women's soccer to forget her. She hopes, as she put it in the ad, that the sport will carry on and eventually overshadow her and the many contributions she has made.
It's a nice idea. It probably won't happen, though.
Wambach had a healthy self-regard for her own towering talent and accomplishments. Never once, however, did she put herself above her sport. Abby was women's soccer. Women's soccer was not Abby.
And for that, she won't be forgotten.
"It was pretty fitting that I was on the field for 70 minutes and not able to score a goal," she told FOX Sports 1 after the game. "Because you know what, maybe it is time to go. I know everybody wanted to get me a goal. It's probably why we didn't score, because they were so focused on that. I think it's kind of appropriate that I lost my last soccer game."
Her voice broke as she spoke of her "storybook career."
"Watch out, Bourbon Street," Wambach said, before literally dropping the mic and stepping out of the camera's view.
Finally, she addressed the crowd.
"It has," she told the Superdome, "been my pleasure and my honor."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.