Abby Wambach shows versatility by adjusting role
When Abby Wambach was just starting out with the United States women’s soccer team, Mia Hamm would tell her to just get to a spot in the box because that’s where Hamm was going to pass the ball.
Usually, the rough-and-tumble young forward would run through or jump over anyone who stood in her way. Wambach knew only way to score and most of the time it revolved around on her 5-foot-11 body, her strength and sheer will to score.
It was power soccer and it struck fear in opponents who’d never seen a style so rugged as Wambach’s.
Fourteen years, 223 matches and 170 goals later, she can still rely on brute force, and a national television audience on ESPN2 might see that on Thursday. The Americans play Mexico on 7 p.m. at Sahlen’s Stadium in their final tune-up for World Cup qualifying, which starts Oct. 15.
But fans also might see Wambach, the Pittsford native and Mercy High School graduate who is game’s all-time leading scorer, be the player who sets up Alex Morgan or Christen Press or Sydney Leroux for a goal. At 34, Wambach can still play physical and will give up her body to score, but she picks her spots more. Now she mixes in guile and creativity and finesse.
“She has shown she’s a versatile player, more than people thought she was,” Morgan said after Tuesday’s training session at Nazareth College. “She can play different roles on this team and it’s great to see her leadership step up at the right times.”
It hasn’t exactly been a great year so far for Wambach. An eye injury and knee injury limited to only 10 matches with the Western New York Flash, who missed the playoffs a season after Wambach and fellow U.S. national team star Carli Lloyd nearly led them to the 2013 title.
But Wambach hopes this fall starts her march to the only trophy — other than the state high school championship, which actually still bothers her — that has eluded her: The World Cup title. The tournament is next June in Canada and Abby knows it’s her last chance.
This will be her fourth try. The Americans were third in 2003 and 2007 before their stirring runner-up finish in 2011 that sparked a popularity surge for the U.S. women that rivaled the 1999 World Cup champions.
“When you get a bit older, like I am, you have to be more mindful of what you put in your body and what you’re doing off the field in terms of weightlifting and keeping your fitness base,” Wambach — who enjoyed a round of golf with her father, Peter, on Monday — said about staying in tip-top shape.
Just looking around and seeing younger forwards competing for her job is motivation. There’s Morgan and Christen Press (both age 25), Sydney Leroux (24) and Amy Rodriguez (27), whose 13 goals last summer were second in the NWSL and helped lead FC Kansas City to the title.
“She’s worked very, very hard to get back physically and now we’re just fine-tuning the technical stuff,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of Wambach. “She was hurt quite a bit this season. I’m just really pleased that she’s come back this strong.”
Wambach and Morgan each had a pair of goals in an 8-0 rout of Mexico in Utah and Press, the third forward in the starting lineup, added two assists. It’s a luxury to have such a strong stable of forwards, Ellis said.
“The forwards have all got the message that we need all of them, we need all of them in form to make it really hard for me to pick,” Ellis said.
With speedsters Morgan and Leroux, the Americans are using Wambach more as a fulcrum from which to run off. They want to use the width of the field to spread defenses and hopefully that will lead to quality crosses into the box for Wambach and others.
“Abby’s added little parts to her game,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “Is she a completely different player? No. She’s still the best in the world at doing what she does.”
That’s what makes it believable that even at age 36 in the 2016 Olympics, Wambach can still be a key player. Even if she loses a step, her aerial presence on every corner kick and free kick will make defenses take notice and open up chances for teammates.
While the World Cup is all that’s on her mind, Wambach is expected to be with the Flash for a few matches before it starts. All allocated U.S., Mexican and Canadian national team players in National Women’s Soccer League will play in a few matches with their club teams before leaving to prepare and play in the World Cup, which starts in early June.
The NWSL will take a two-week break during the Cup and as a result will extend the season for the first time into late September. Most national team players will miss about six to eight matches out of the 20-game schedule, NWSL commissioner Cheryl Bailey said Tuesday.
“I’d love to play (in Rochester) again (for the Flash),” Wambach said. “We’ve just got to figure out the schedule and see if it works well with mine, but the reality is my focus next year will be the World Cup.
“I want the NWSL to succeed, so does everybody on the national team, but you can’t put the cart before the horse when it comes to popularity and how much a World Cup championship could bring to the league.”
(Via USA Today)