U.S. team wants to party like it’s 1999

The Washington Post Sunday - - SOCCER - steven.goff@wash­post.com

Four years on, it still gnaws at her.

“It’s al­ways there, and that is what hap­pens in heart­break,” Wam­bach said ahead of Sun­day’s cham­pi­onship re­match at sold­out BC Place. “Heart­break never goes away, but now we have an op­por­tu­nity.”

It’s an op­por­tu­nity for the Amer­i­cans to win their first cup ti­tle since 1999 and be­come the first coun­try to hoist the Women’s World Cup tro­phy three times. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to celebrate with thou­sands of trav­el­ing sup­port­ers who have trekked across Canada for four weeks and flooded this wa­ter­front city in a swath of red, white and blue.

It’s an op­por­tu­nity for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of play­ers to shake free of con­stant com­par­isons to the 1999 squad.

And in her fourth and fi­nal at­tempt, it’s an op­por­tu­nity for Wam­bach to win the only trea­sure that has evaded her.

“That fu­els our fire. That mo­ti­vates us,” she said of the 2011 set­back. “We know what that feels like from four years ago, and it’s not a good feel­ing.”

Ten days be­fore the World Cup be­gan, Wam­bach was asked whether she needed a world ti­tle to com­plete her ex­tra­or­di­nary port­fo­lio.

“You’re damn right I need it,” she said.

Wam­bach’s pur­suit this year comes in a sec­ondary role. At 35, she is no longer the daily fo­cal point of the U.S. at­tack. She did start three of the first four matches, scor­ing the lone goal in the group fi­nale against Nige­ria, but those as­sign­ments came in large part be­cause Alex Mor­gan, re­turn­ing from a knee in­jury, was not ready to play 90 min­utes.

Wam­bach was a late-game sub­sti­tute in the round of 16 and quar­ter­fi­nals. In all like­li­hood, with Jill El­lis’s squad in rhythm af­ter de­feat­ing Ger­many, Wam­bach will wait her turn again.

Wam­bach said she is okay with her place in the squad and do­ing what best serves the team. It does feel dif­fer­ent, she ad­mit­ted, af­ter start­ing for a dozen years.

“It’s nerve-wrack­ing. It’s bru­tal. I’m not say­ing this be­cause I’m sit­ting on the bench and not play­ing, but it’s tak­ing years off my life,” she said. “I now un­der­stand why par­ents say how stress­ful it is be­cause you don’t have any con­trol about what is go­ing on un­less you are on the pitch.”

El­lis met with Wam­bach sev­eral times ahead of the World Cup to dis­cuss the striker’s role. “She has been ex­em­plary,” El­lis said.

As Wam­bach em­braced the new role, her team­mates em­braced her, know­ing it’s the fi­nal go-round. Wam­bach has not an­nounced her re­tire­ment from in­ter­na­tional soc­cer, but fol­low­ing this tour­na­ment, El­lis is pre­par­ing to in­te­grate more young play­ers ahead of next year’s Olympics in Brazil.

Wam­bach’s bond with long­time team­mates con­tin­ues to en­dure.

“I could play with her with my eyes closed,” said midfielder Carli Lloyd, the team’s lead­ing scorer in this tour­na­ment with three goals.

“I al­ways know where she is go­ing to be. I al­ways know what she is think­ing. She has been a true leader. We wouldn’t be where we are with­out her. And I want noth­ing more than to help her legacy by win­ning the World Cup. I want to win it for my­self and the team, but be­ing her last one, I will do what­ever it takes.”

De­feat­ing Ja­pan in the 2012 Olympic fi­nal in Lon­don soft­ened the World Cup blow a year ear­lier, but a vic­tory Sun­day would turn the page on the 1999 spec­ta­cle.

“It’s been a lot of years be­tween ’99 and now, and it’s time,” said de­fender Christie Ram­pone, a mem­ber of the ’99 squad who, at age 40, is also play­ing in her last World Cup. “Af­ter this game, hope­fully we end up on top and it grows the game of soc­cer. I hope it’s not com­pared to ’99 any­more. I hope it’s lead­ing on to the next team that wins the World Cup.”

This year, while the Amer­i­cans (5-0-1) have made con­tin­ual im­prove­ment as the tour­na­ment has tran­spired, Ja­pan has won six con­sec­u­tive one-goal matches. It se­cured pas­sage to the fi­nal Wed­nes­day on an own goal by Eng­land’s Laura Bas­sett in the dy­ing mo­ments in Ed­mon­ton.

The Ja­panese team will also say good­bye to a revered player, 36-year-old midfielder Ho­mare Sawa, who is in her record sixth World Cup. Like Wam­bach, she has made pe­ri­odic starts in this tour­na­ment.

“She has had such a sto­ried ca­reer. I was so happy she was able to win that 2011 World Cup be­cause she put the team on her back,” Wam­bach said. “That was their time.”

Maybe, on Sun­day, it is the U.S. team’s time.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ab­byWam­bach, mid­dle, scored a goal against Nige­ria in the group fi­nale. Wam­bach, 35, has won nu­mer­ous ti­tles but never aWorld Cup.

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