The mo­ti­va­tion she em­braces

The 2012 world player of the year has never won a cham­pi­onship in the World Cup.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter kevin.bax­ter@la­times.com Twit­ter: @kbax­ter11

Team USA’s Abby Wam­bach would trade all her records for a World Cup crown.

There are very few hon­ors that have eluded Abby Wam­bach dur­ing her un­par­al­leled soc­cer ca­reer.

World player of the year? She won that in 2012.

Olympic gold medals? Wam­bach’s got two of them.

Records? Her 182 in­ter­na­tional goals are the most by any player, male or fe­male, in his­tory.

What she doesn’t have is a World Cup ti­tle. With this year’s tour­na­ment prob­a­bly the last for Wam­bach, who turned 35 Tues­day, her fam­ily has be­gun ap­peal­ing to a higher power for help.

“I’m pray­ing for it,” her mother Judy said hope­fully. “I’ve got nove­nas go­ing be­cause I re­ally want this to hap­pen.”

Wam­bach didn’t say whether she’s lit any can­dles in ad­vance of the U.S. team’s World Cup opener with Aus­tralia on Monday in Win­nipeg. But she made it clear she’s left very lit­tle else to chance.

“As you grow older, you start rem­i­nisc­ing more about these spe­cific tour­na­ments and how im­por­tant they are per­son­ally,” she said. “The World Cup is the fo­cus right now. All of my mind and all of my body is set on the World Cup.”

So tight is that fo­cus that Wam­bach, un­like many of her team­mates, de­cided not to play in the Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League this spring, har­bor­ing her en­ergy and emo­tion for the World Cup. At first it was a con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion, one that so an­gered her team, the Western New York Flash, it traded her to the Seat­tle Reign.

But when U.S. team­mates Ali Krieger (con­cus­sion) and Alex Mor­gan (knee) were in­jured while with their NWSL teams, Wam­bach’s cau­tion proved pre­science.

“You never know,” she said “if you’re go­ing to get another chance.”

Wam­bach has al­ready had three of those, reach­ing the semi­fi­nals in her first two World Cups, then com­ing tan­ta­liz­ingly close to a cham­pi­onship four years ago when her goal in over­time put the U.S. ahead. But Ja­pan ral­lied to tie be­fore win­ning on penalty kicks, ex­tend­ing the Amer­i­cans’ ti­tle drought to 16 years.

Which is why Wam­bach is de­ter­mined to make this one count.

“I want to fin­ish my ca­reer off on a high note, play in this World Cup and bring home the World Cup to the United States,” she said. “That would be ab­so­lutely a dream come true and a per­fect way to end a ca­reer.”

Wam­bach ex­pected to be a part-time player in Canada — a con­ces­sion to both her age and a gru­el­ing sched­ule that will re­quire the World Cup fi­nal­ists to play seven games in 30 days. But her role has grown af­ter the in­jury to Mor­gan, whose sta­tus for the tour­na­ment re­mains un­cer­tain.

And she’s em­braced it. In Mor­gan’s ab­sence, Wam­bach started twice and scored four of the team’s eight goals on its three-game send-off tour. For the fi­nal World Cup tuneup Coach Jill El­lis also gave Wam­bach the cap­tain’s arm­band, ac­knowl­edg­ing her im­por­tance ex­tends be­yond her abil­ity to score.

“She is a force of na­ture in her lead­er­ship, her spirit,” El­lis said. “She re­ally is a player than gal­va­nizes.” Or in­tim­i­dates. El­lis, an as­sis­tant coach with the 2012 Olympic team, re­mem­bers a livid Wam­bach storm­ing into the locker room at half­time af­ter the U.S. gave up two goals in the first 14 min­utes in its opener against France.

“The play­ers were like ‘holy crap,’ ” said El­lis, who led the other coaches out of the room, leav­ing the team to Wam­bach. “When she talks, play­ers lis­ten. She in­spires them. And I think they trust her.

“She con­veys con­fi­dence and gives con­fi­dence.”

Per­spec­tive too, be­cause for the first time Wam­bach’s life no longer re­volves solely around soc­cer. In Oc­to­ber 2013 she wed long­time part­ner and former team­mate Sarah Huff­man in a pri­vate cer­e­mony in Hawaii, and that has put Wam­bach more at ease.

“No mat­ter who you are, how suc­cess­ful you are, you have to have a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment around you that keeps you bal­anced,” Wam­bach said. “It’s nice hav­ing some­body in your cor­ner that doesn’t look at you as a fa­mous soc­cer star. They look at you as a per­son and they want to take care of you from a hu­man per­spec­tive.

“No mat­ter how suc­cess­ful any­body gets, they’re still hu­man be­ings and they still need to take out the trash.”

Or, in some cases, trash World Cup fields. Wam­bach doesn’t have to be re­minded that, af­ter win­ning two of the first three tour­na­ments be­hind Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chas­tain, the U.S. is 0 for 3 since Wam­bach joined the team.

The rea­sons for that have lit­tle to do with any one player. The World Cup field has dou­bled in size since Hamm’s early days, for ex­am­ple, and the qual­ity of the com­pe­ti­tion has im­proved ten­fold.

The lack of a ti­tle is still a big hole on Wam­bach’s re­sume, though.

“Abby would say that she’d get rid of all [her] records to win the World Cup,” said Cat White­hill, who played along­side Wam­bach in two World Cups be­fore be­com­ing a Fox Sports an­a­lyst. “But she’s one of the best play­ers ever. You look at play­ers out there like [Lionel] Messi, who never won a World Cup. It doesn’t tar­nish his legacy.

“Would it be a dis­ap­point­ment? Yeah, ob­vi­ously. Be­cause that’s what your goal is and you dream of win­ning a World Cup.”

Foudy agrees. Af­ter a spec­tac­u­lar 15-year ca­reer, a World Cup ti­tle would just be the icing on the cake for Wam­bach.

“If you look back, they’re go­ing to talk about her goal scor­ing. And her longevity. And her dom­i­nance. And the fact that she’s just this gi­ant of the game,” said Foudy, a mem­ber of the Na­tional Soc­cer Hall of Fame. “The first thing that peo­ple talk about will not be — if she doesn’t win this sum­mer — that she never won a World Cup.

“But that will be the first thing she’ll talk about. When you talk to Abby, she says, ‘It’s ev­ery­thing to me.’ Be­cause it is the pin­na­cle of soc­cer.”

Tom Du­lat Getty Im­ages

ABBY WAM­BACH, who turned 35 Tues­day, skipped the pro sea­son this spring so she could con­cen­trate on her prepa­ra­tion for the U.S. World Cup team.

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