Wambach has loss on her mind
U.S. star remembers well Japan’s win four years ago
vancouver— The date is seared in Abby Wambach’s mind, a daily cue reminding her and the rest of the U.S. women’s national soccer team of what they missed out on four summers ago in Frankfurt. “July 17, 2011,” she said pointedly. Wambach said she does not remember the date of her U.S. debut or first goal, her pro championship with the Washington Freedom a dozen years ago, the three Olympic gold medals or the day she became the greatest international goal scorer. She does, however, remember when the United States lost to Japan in the World Cup final, amatch that was decided on penalty kicks after the Americans surrendered leads late in both regulation and extra time.
The moment was soft and sweet, a contrast to the passion and power often exuded whenever Abby Wambach is present. For once, the defining player of the past dozen years of women’s soccer— the most prolific goal scorer in the history of international soccer competition, male or female— was left to listen to her greatness.
Wambach had nothing to fight for in this moment, not a victory, not a gold medal or elusive World Cuptitle, not gender equality. Two days from another chance to win the World Cup, Wambach sat ona dais Friday afternoon during a newsconference and experienced one long toast from her U.S. teammates.
We wouldn’t be where we’re at without her. She’s irreplaceable. I want nothing more than to help her legacy and win a World Cup.
Wambach offered a shy smile as her face turned red. Then she looked down, and if you had forgotten how strong she is, imagine what it took to restrain those tears.
It was a nice tribute before the 35-year-old Wambach’s World Cup epilogue, before the Americans attempt to win this thing for the first time in 16 years. It was also a sobering illustration of the neverending challenge facing the U.S. women’s national team.
Sunday’s World Cup final is about more than avenging the heartbreaking loss to Japan four years ago. It’s about continuing what has become one of the great traditions in American sports.
It’s about 1999, for sure, just not exclusively. Sixteen years ago, when that iconic American team captured the World Cup and the nation’s attention, the success was vital to the credibility of a fledgling women’s game and to the health of Title IX. Now women’s soccer has more worldwide parity, and the American soccer star has evolved in skill and athleticism. Thegame still wants to gain relevance and profitability inthe periods between the Olympic Games and World Cups, but the product is better. And this U.S. team is a worthy descendant.
But a World Cup triumph is required to illuminate this fact.
Wambach doesn’t just get it. She feeds the notion. Her accomplishments mirror the progress of Americanwomen’s soccer since 1999. In addition to her record 183 goals in 247 international matches, she has two Olympic gold medals (missed out on a third because of a broken leg during the 2008 Beijing Games). In2011, she was named the Associated Press athlete of the year, a first for any soccer star, male or female. In2012, she was the FIFA women’s player of the year.
That’s an amazing run of individual and team success, but when she talks about being a steward of the U.S. tradition, she focuses on the World Cup.
“That’s what I want my legacy to be,” she has said repeatedly.
You could consider it an unfair burden because, for about a decade, Wambach and her teammates have given so much to the sport. When you’ve accomplished what theyhave, why does one tournament have to mean so much?
This is the seventh women’s World Cup. With a victory Sunday, the United States would become the first team to win it three times. Whenthe Americans won the first tournament in 1991, 12 nations competed. Sixteen countries were in the field in 1999. This year, for the first time, there are 24 teams. The failure to win the past three World Cups says more about the international growth of the women’s game than it does any U.S. flaws. Even with the improved play, the Americans have yet to place lower than third in a World Cup.
But the high standard is admirable and healthy despite the pressure that comes attached. It’s a testament to the greatness of Wambach and the entire program that they can handle such unforgiving judgment. When they’re no longer evaluated in this manner, they will be ordinary. The only thing more intolerable than watching people frown over second or third place is seeing them turn flips over the same result.
It’s easy tomake this World Cup final into the tale of the U.S. team chasing the ghost of 1999. But if you take the time to understand why Wambach doesn’t shy from a championship-or-bust mentality, it becomes apparent that the Americans are chasing a longheld standard more than one legendary team.
This championship bid isn’t only about honoring Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Briana Scurry, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and all those stars of 1999. It’s also about honoring Carin Jennings (now Carin Gabarra, the Navy women’s soccer coach), wholed that 1991 World Cup squad that featured the “triple-edged sword” of Jennings, Michelle Akers and team captain April Heinrichs.
Wambach would easily make the short list of candidates for the greatest player in women’s soccer history. But throughout her dominant run, she has been a World Cup shy of overflowing appreciation. Thenational team’s disappointments in 2003, 2007 and 2011 weren’t her fault. She has made them her burden, however.
Wambach says this is her last World Cup. She’s no longer the best player in the world. She’s no longer the best player on her national team. She hasn’t started the last two matches, and she figures to come off the bench Sunday. She will cheer more than she plays, but she craves this final chance, against Japan, again.
Many athletes wouldn’t dare make too much of a single game. They wouldn’t allow this pursuit to compete with all their accomplishments. Wambach doesn’t care. She is comfortable with her career. But she wants more, and her example will only condition the next batch of American stars, such as 23-yearold Julie Johnston, to strive similarly.
Wambach wants a résumé as sharp as a triple-edged sword. That’s just how American stars have been raised.
It’s a heavy responsibility. Not everyone is capable of lifting it.
It’s the enduring effort, though, thatmakes this team so intriguing.
AbbyWambach walks off the field after losing the 2011Women’sWorld Cup final.