Abby Wambach vividly remembers the first time she saw the U.S. women's national team play, but she couldn't know then how soon she'd become part of the history she witnessed on that day.
"It was the day Mia scored her 100th goal," she says of Mia Hamm hitting the century mark against Russia on Sept. 18, 1998, at Frontier Field in Wambach's hometown, Rochester, N.Y. "The crowd was roaring, it was a great day.
"At that point it seems so far away, not even within your grasp. Always it was in the back of my head that it would be cool, one day, to play for the national team, not even thinking that my life could be what it is now. It's great to reflect and go back."
Just three years later, Wambach debuted for the national team in a match against Germany in Chicago. Hamm scored twice, Wambach played the last 14 minutes of a 4-1 victory. Two days after that game, planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field.
The sixth anniversary of that terrible day coincides with Wambach's next quest in an American jersey. The U.S. team opens the 2007 World Cup against North Korea on Sept. 11 in Chengdu, China. There will be harsh memories of smoke and flames, tears will be shed for the lives lost, and then immense pride and intense determination will take over.
The USA will take an amazing unbeaten streak dating back to the final game of previous coach April Heinrich's career, a 5-0 defeat of Mexico at Home Depot Center in December 2004. Wambach scored two goals in that game, after which Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett officially ended their careers. The game was also the last for another veteran, Brandi Chastain, whom Greg Ryan chose not to call up when he took over as coach for April Heinrichs in 2005.
"Mia and I are pretty much opposite personalities," says Wambach. "She's an introvert and I'm an extrovert. She didn't feel 100 percent comfortable being the face [of the U.S. team]. She did amazing things with it and she really brought our game to the next level, and she knows how proud I am of her and how important I think she is, and has been, to this game."
A new era began in 2005.
Kristine Lilly stayed on, yet the next generation of U.S. players centered on Wambach, its powerful striker, took up the task of emulating success through hard work and selfless commitment. The unbeaten streak reached 46 games (39-0-7) with a 6-1 rout of New Zealand in the penultimate game before the World Cup. Wambach scored twice to increase her tally to 77 goals in 95 matches, a strike rate no player in the team's history, not Hamm, not Lilly, not Michelle Akers, not Tiffeny Milbrett, could match.
"What I've been most impressed with is everyone knows her, everyone knows how dominant she is in the air, they put two or three players on her and try to kick the s*** out of her, and she still can produce," says Foudy, who will work as a commentator during the World Cup. "She sometimes doesn't get a lot of looks, yet her strike rate is phenomenal.
"She'll run through walls for you. She's so competitive and fiery. She's always been like that and that's the first thing I loved about her. For me, that was always the marker of young kids coming in. In Amy, I saw that right away and was one of the reasons I knew she got her fitness and everything else sorted out, she'd dominate at this level."
FITNESS ISSUES. Wambach is big, no question. At 5-11, and powerfully built, she can overpower most opponents. She set scoring records at the University of Florida, racking up 96 goals and 49 assists and hitting hat tricks 10 times. In two WUSA seasons, playing with Hamm for the Washington Freedom, she scored 23 goals, one of which was a spectacular diving header that was named 2003 Goal of the Year shortly before the league folded.
Yet she didn't have the international experience of teammates who came through the U.S. Soccer development programs. Since she began her national team career, FIFA has instituted an U-20 women's world championship and that competition has helped U.S. Soccer groom players for the women's team.
She seemed ideally suited to play the dominant center forward role filled for more than a decade by Michelle Akers, a 5-10 dynamo who scored 105 goals in 153 games for the U.S. (1985-2000). Wambach did net five goals in 2002 and nine goals in 2003 yet still vied for playing time with Cindy Parlow, Shannon MacMillan and Milbrett.
"She always took that for granted," says Foudy. "She wasn't the fittest and that's why she struggled for awhile."
The 2003 World Cup haunts Wambach for reasons other than conditioning. She broods about the semifinal match against Germany that the U.S. lost, 3-0. She'd scored three goals, including the winner in a 1-0 defeat of Norway in the quarterfinals, leading up to the match in front of a sellout crowd in Portland, Ore.
In the 15th minute, Germany's tall midfielder Kerstin Garefrekes stunned the Americans by scoring from a corner kick. Plenty of time remained, but attack after attack faltered, and the resilient Germans tacked on two late goals to eliminate the USA.
"In my opinion, the reason we lost to Germany in '03 was because my mark scored the first goal on the corner kick," says Wambach. "I have an added incentive to redeem, not myself, but the USA as being World Cup champs.
"I've been preparing for four years. It's kept me up many a night and if it happened to any other player they'd be sitting here telling you the exact same thing."
During those four years, goals have flown off her feet and head. In 2004, she nailed an incredible 31 goals, including four in the Olympics, in 33 games. Her pace abated somewhat after Hamm's retirement in December of that year. Ryan took over in 2005 and implemented a greater emphasis on defense. Wambach logged four goals in eight games that first year under Ryan, and five goals in nine games last year.
"I didn't really want to sit and talk about defending all the time, but it was essential," says Wambach, who along with forward mates Lilly and Lindsey Tarpley are expected to harass opposing defenders and close down in midfield when needed. "The more organized defense you have, the better you are at containing the other team and conceding goals. Now we've moved into a more attack-oriented phase and our defense is as solid as I've ever known it."
In this attack-oriented phase, Wambach averaged a goal a game - 11 goals in 11 games -- heading into the final preparation match against Finland. In a 2-0 defeat of China June 16, she broke open a goalless game by crashing a Lilly free kick into the net on a typically fierce header, and dove to head home a Stephanie Lopez corner kick for the clincher.
She scores roughly half of her goals on headers and isn't willing to take much credit for her prowess.
"The reason we score so many goals on set plays is that we practice them a lot," she says. "If I'm a great header, it's because I have great balls served into me."
Wambach uses her rare failures as motivation. She sat out the the final group match at the 2004 Olympics because of suspension and returned to lead the USA to the gold medal, scoring the winning goal in the final. The current team's amazing unbeaten run is tainted by a penalty-kick loss to Germany in the 2006 Algarve Cup final, which is officially recorded as tie by FIFA and U.S. Soccer.
Wambach views the result differently.
"I missed the penalty kick against Germany at the Algarve Cup when we lost to them," she states. "I've grown a lot and matured a lot these past couple of years because, as important as it is to score goals, it's also equally important to be a leader, to make sure everyone's getting their job done."
SIMPLE THINGS. From Hamm, Wambach learned ways to deal with demands, rightly or wrongly, applied externally by the media, fans, and other forces outside the team. The poise and precision and experience of Lilly, who will play in her fifth World Cup, has also affected Wambach's game. She makes scoring look simple, no matter how fiercely she must battle to find the ball or tear herself free in a congested penalty area.
"Back-heeling and bicycle-kicking and outside-of-the-foot passing isn't what's needed every single time," says Wambach, who lacks the agility of Akers and blinding pace of Hamm and at 27 is still refining her game. "Kristine is amazing because she's always done the most simple things consistently."
Says Lilly, "It's just her time with the team. She's grown and she learned a lot from Mia. They worked together. It's different. Players used to double-team Mia, now they're double-teaming and marking Abby, so I get a little bit of freedom, which is nice.
"After Mia left, I think she went through a period of, 'Now what do I do?' She's handled that. She's scoring goals for us and setting up goals, she's holding the ball, and she's worked extremely hard. She's fit, she's strong, and she's becoming a leader as well."
Lilly, Wambach and defender Kate Markgraf take much of the leadership on a team that boasts numerous weapons, so reliance on Wambach isn't necessary. But like Hamm and Akers before her, opponents know quite well who is the biggest threat.
"You just have the quintessential forward right there," says Markgraf, a national team player since 1998. "She comes back, wins air balls. She's imposing mentally as well as physically to every defender that she faces. Her trajectory is just going to continue straight up. I don't think she's hit her peak. She's phenomenal now and is only going to get better. I feel sorry for all the other defenders who have to play against her."
Wambach believes the women's game has taken a turn similar to that in the men's game decades ago, with more players defending behind the ball and clogging up space in the final third. Even teams like Brazil, which the U.S. defeated, 2-0, on June 23 (goals by Lilly and Wambach) play a much tighter game than in years past.
"It's a different game now," she says. "Some people say I'm just a big player with no skill. All I can do is keep scoring goals. I've learned that you can't please everybody. I'm just preparing so I'll be ready for whatever comes."
(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)