A new generation of U.S. soccer emerged last night, and we have Abby Wambach to thank
The Abby Wambach huddle is becoming a fixture between the first and second half of matches for the United States this World Cup. The entire team huddles around its biggest star, who screams words of wisdom, encouragement, and more than a few expletives. The rest of the team nods silently in agreement, focuses in on the task at hand. When the huddle breaks, they take the field, and finds a way to win.
Wambach played just 10 minutes of the U.S.’s 2-0 semifinal win against Germany on Tuesday. It’s a new role – and a vitally important one – for a player who has hardly stepped off the pitch for the stars and stripes over the past 12 years. Wambach is laying a path to follow, and then letting her teammates walk.
At the start of this World Cup, it didn’t appear that Wambach or coach Jill Ellis was interested in that transition. Wambach featured heavily in the team’s first four matches, and it appeared Wambach was taking a victory lap on the field. But that theory was laid to rest in the quarterfinal against China, when she was left out of the lineup in favor of a younger starting 11. Wambach was absent from the field for the first 85 minutes of the match, but her presence was clearly felt. She pleaded for a [expletive] goal from her teammates at halftime, and sure enough, Carli Lloyd filled her request in short order.
Against Germany, Wambach again ceded to a new generation of U.S. soccer, allowing players like Morgan Brian, Lauren Holiday, and Tobin Heath to seize their opportunity. Wambach stepping back has also allowed Carli Lloyd to step forward. At 32, the past 180 minutes have allowed Lloyd to take this team and make it hers. She’s done just that; having a hand in all three U.S. goals against China and Germany – scoring two and assisting the other.
The U.S. heads into the World Cup final looking rejuvenated and with a confidence that was absent in the group stage. It’s a team that is charging forward rather than backing in. And more importantly, it’s a team with a future emerging. Leading into this World Cup, you would survey the lineup and call out familiar names like Wambach, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo. Names like Julie Johnston, Brian, Heath, or Holiday simply didn’t resonate. This was a team built on veterans, and they would win on their experience.
It’s shocking and improbable to see this transformation play out so suddenly in the span of a month. Tobin Heath hardly played in the team’s first two matches. Morgan Brian might still be on the bench had Holiday not been suspended for the quarterfinal due to yellow card accumulation. A year ago, Julie Johnston didn’t even look like she would be on the team. Now we look at them as the future. Joined with Morgan, there is a core that could represent another World Cup cycle if not two.
It’s hard to see that emergence occur with Wambach on the field. That has little to do with Wambach’s ability and everything to do with the tactics employed by Ellis. Against Germany, the 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1 if you play a lot of FIFA ’15 and are a contrarian) would have been untenable with Wambach playing as the lone striker. Wambach is a world class target striker at a time when the U.S. needs a holding midfielder. And so, Wambach withdrew and allowed that holding midfielder – Brian – to step forward.
The U.S. owes a great deal to Wambach. Two Olympic gold medals, two World Cup third place finishes, and an appearance in the final, if anyone is counting. But it could very well be that her greatest gift to her team will be the humility and foresight to step back at the right time. Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s final, Abby Wambach’s greatest World Cup contribution on the field will ultimately be her decision to step off it.
(Via USA Today)