Abby Wambach, Unconcerned With Broken Records or Nose, Craves World Cup Title
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The Irish goalkeeper reached to punch the ball away and cracked Abby Wambach’s nose with her forearm. Wambach began to bleed profusely. Her nose tilted slightly to the left, like a weather vane.
After a check for concussion symptoms, Wambach remained in the exhibition match on May 10. She had played a full 90 minutes in only four of the previous 31 games for the United States national soccer team. She needed to regain her sharpness. The Women’s World Cup was approaching. The nose was broken. Wambach did not care. She would get it fixed after she retired.
The leading career scorer in international soccer, Wambach had collected her 179th and 180th goals for the national team in what would become a 3-0 victory over Ireland. And she wanted more.
“Get me one of those cotton balls, stuff it in my nose and put me back out there,” Wambach told Coach Jill Ellis and the training staff.
The moment symbolized Wambach’s approach to her final World Cup, to be played across Canada from June 6 to July 5: headlong, blunt, ruthless, unswerving. She scored two more goals Sunday night in a 5-1 exhibition victory over Mexico. She will seek to score again in the final pre-World Cup exhibition, against South Korea next Saturday at Red Bull Arena.
Wambach will turn 35 on June 2, six days before the Americans open World Cup play against Australia. She has two Olympic gold medals but no World Cup title. She made a controversial choice not to play this season in the National Women’s Soccer League, choosing to train mostly on her own when apart from the national team. This is her last chance. Surgery on her nose can wait. Career fulfillment cannot.
“It’s something that’s lacking on her résumé, and I think it’s her everything right now,” Judy Wambach, Abby’s mother, said. “She thinks it will validate her, but she’s also realistic. It’s a game. But she would be brokenhearted if her team didn’t win.”
A self-described person of extremes, Abby Wambach is rounding into form in a familiar last-minute manner. Her teammates, she concedes, find this approach both predictable and frustrating. For months, questions have hung in the air like balls served toward her head. Had her determination ebbed? Could she be a regular starter? Did she still have the stamina to play 90 minutes?
In these days of year-round fitness, Wambach is a throwback, a soccer player as pugilist who has worked to get into fighting trim for one final bout. In successive months, she has given up soda, candy, desserts, fried food, alcohol. She has lost five to 10 pounds and may shed another 10 by the end of the World Cup.
“I like to call it my vice weight, my red wine weight,” the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Wambach said, laughing, in a wide-ranging interview this month. “I’m obsessive. I can eat really unhealthy for a bit, then eat really well to combat it. That’s who I am. Now, I’m in the really healthy phase.”
Her private life, like her professional life, has followed its own direction. Wambach is probably the most accomplished of the high-profile gay and lesbian athletes who have come out in the last two years. But her October 2013 marriage to her longtime partner, Sarah Huffman, came without the fanfare of a news conference or a first-person magazine article.
This was meant, in part, Wambach said, to show that a same-sex marriage could be as typical and routine as a heterosexual one, a private ceremony and commitment with no mandate for a grand public announcement.
“I never felt like I had to have this huge party for myself about my sexuality,” Wambach said. “To make a party for something that I think of as normal, for me, that just didn’t seem authentic. I wanted it to be as normal as possible.”
Tony DiCicco, who coached the United States women to their last World Cup title, in 1999, wondered in a recent interview whether “the passion is gone” from soccer for Wambach. It is a beguiling question, Wambach said.
“As you get older, I wouldn’t say the passion leaves you, but it changes,” Wambach said. “I’ll be honest. After I got married, I definitely had a shift in emotional devotion. Forever, it was just soccer — passion, life, love. Then I got married, and I had to transfer some of my energy. I want to be my best for my country, but I also made a really big promise and choice to be the best in my marriage. That has not always been the easiest thing to manage.”
But as her fourth World Cup nears, Wambach said, “I’m finally feeling like I’m having fun again.”
She added: “International friendlies, they mean something, but what you want is to play on the biggest stage, play under the lights. When it gets to be that time, like now, something turns on inside me.”
Her approach to this tournament has been unorthodox. She declined to play this season for the Western New York Flash of the N.W.S.L. The coach, Aaron Lines, criticized Wambach, saying that players who did not participate for their club teams should not be eligible for the national team. Later, Wambach was traded to the Seattle Reign.
Wambach said she had no regrets about her decision. The added pounding on her legs, the possibility of injury from rough tackles by less experienced players, “was too much of a risk for me to take,” she said.
For several days, Wambach trained with Seattle, saying she got a valuable tip from Coach Laura Harvey about the timing on heading the ball. Wambach has scored 77 of her 182 international goals with her head, but Harvey noticed that Wambach had become less assertive in launching her head as a fist.
“I wasn’t attacking the ball,” Wambach said. “As you get older, you slow down a little. Then it’s a reaction thing. You’re too slow, and you’re too late, and then you’re like, ‘I hope it gets over her head,’ rather than beating your defender to the ball, using your pace moving forward as a force to beat the goalkeeper.”
When not training with the national team, though, Wambach has mostly trained on her own in Portland, Ore., where she lives, playing pickup games at Nike headquarters, doing interval runs on hills in her neighborhood, playing daily rounds of golf. Her fitness, she hopes, will reach its peak at the World Cup, as it always does.
“I think I take on a little more responsibility when push comes to shove,” Wambach said. “I’m not scared to fail. I’m not afraid to put people on my back and carry this team.
“Now, it might be in a different way than it’s been before. I can’t argue that fact because I’m going to be 35 years old.”
That becomes a central issue for the Americans. Can Wambach effectively carry the team? Will she need to? Can she still deliver consistently against other top teams like Germany, Japan, France, Canada and Brazil? According to EqualizerSoccer.com, Wambach’s nonpenalty goals against the world’s top 15 teams dipped from 0.79 per 90 minutes in 2012 to 0.53 in 2013 to 0.34 in 2014.
The United States is resourceful, with Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Carli Lloyd and Christen Press providing dependable scoring. But Morgan has been injured in recent months with an ankle sprain and a bone bruise on her knee. And it is Wambach who has built a great career on impeccable timing — scoring the winning goal in overtime at the 2004 Athens Olympics, pounding a memorable header against Brazil 122 minutes into the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup.
“I really think Abby’s role will be as big as she can deliver,” said Ellis, the American coach. “Her role is critical to our success. I have 100 percent confidence that she will be ready. Jokingly, I said a long time ago, even if she’s hobbling around on one leg, I still think we need her to be successful because of all the intangibles she brings.”
There will be some necessary accommodation made at this World Cup. Wambach is not likely to start every game. And she is considering wearing tights on the artificial turf fields to try to prevent carpet rash on her thighs and hips and raspberries on her knees. Inevitably, Wambach said, she will play differently from the way she plays on grass. She campaigned adamantly — and futilely — for grass surfaces.
“It’s not that I’m going to back off,” Wambach said, “but there’s going to be specific plays where I’m like: ‘Maybe I won’t go to ground there. I’m not going to slide. It’s not worth it.’ People have that moment; they do.”
Most immediately, she said, her goal is to get sharp so that her teammates can feel as confident in her reliability as she does.
“Why do you think I’ve made the career that I have in the World Cup and the Olympics?” Wambach said. “Why do you think I score?”
She answered her own question.
“Because people are a little bit scared,” she said, referring to the pressure. “They’re like: ‘I’m going to pump that ball up to Wambach, see what happens. I don’t want to play this little 5-yard ball, because if I pass it and it gets picked off and we get scored on, then it’s my fault.’ The nerves and stress make people play a little more direct, make them play a little ‘Let’s just pump the ball in there; this is a safer play.’ And I just make stuff happen.”
(Via The New York Times)