Wam­bach has loss on her mind

U.S. star re­mem­bers well Ja­pan’s win four years ago

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF

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.

MICHAEL PROBST/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ab­byWam­bach walks off the field af­ter los­ing the 2011Women’sWorld Cup fi­nal.

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