Regardless of how successful head coach Pia Sundhage has been in her quest to wean the team off from its reliance on her, and instill a more flowing, fluid attack, not until the 30th minute of its final tune-up match July 16 against Brazil had any real urgency set in. A clumsy challenge left Wambach with a fractured leg and the U.S. gold-medal hopes damaged as well.
Now the American women have no choice but to step forward, collectively and individually, to prove they can overcome yet another major injury. Already ruled out of the Olympics are midfielder Leslie Osborne and defender Cat Whitehill; it can be argued the U.S. has lagged behind Brazil and Germany with those players, logically, how can one assume the Americans will do better without them?
The answer is: Winning a gold medal depends on being the better team on the day once the knockout round begins. Rankings, reputations, and past results mean nothing. "Abby is a big loss for us, but we've also lost two other players with a lot of experience," says captain Christie Rampone. "We've been able to bounce back and work on new things. We've been changing our system and style all throughout the year in case something like this happened."
For the Americans, steeling themselves for what lies ahead begins in the group phase. They have three competitive games to work Wambach out of their play and their minds, and while Norway has slipped from its previous status as one of the world's top teams, it can be formidable with a rugged defense, tenacious midfield, and opportunistic counterattack.
"It's a good team, it's a team that is well organized and the set pieces are pretty good as well," says Sundhage. "One thing for sure we have to deal with well are their counter-attacks. For our attack, we have to mix it up a little bit. We will face an organized team and that is challenging."
The goalscoring has been spread around this year: Wambach tops the charts with 13 goals, yet Natasha Kai has hit 11, and Lindsay Tarpley is next with 10. Carli Lloyd has scored seven from her central midfield spot and her prowess at shooting from distance can help loosen up Norway, which packs players behind and around the ball.
On paper, the U.S. should romp, having beaten Norway twice this year by 4-0 scores, including a thumping in Fredrikstad in early July. Wambach scored two of those eight goals; netting one each were Kai, Lloyd, Tarpley, Heather O'Reilly, Amy Rodriguez and Angela Hucles. The U.S. has swept the last 10 meetings dating back to a 3-2 defeat at the 2002 Algarve Cup that marked the fourth straight time Norway had come out on top.
How the times have changed!
Lauren Cheney replaced Wambach on the roster; replacing her spirit, determination, aerial strength, and thirst for goals is a collective duty.
Nicole Barnhart (Gilbertsville, Pa.)
Hope Solo (Richland, Wash.)
Rachel Buehler (Del Mar, Calif.)
Lori Chalupny (St. Louis, Mo.)
Stephanie Cox (Elk Grove, Calif.)
Kate Markgraf (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
Heather Mitts (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Christie Rampone (Point Pleasant, N.J.)
Shannon Boxx (Redondo Beach, Calif.)
Tobin Heath (Basking Ridge, N.J.)
Angela Hucles (Virginia Beach, Va.)
Carli Lloyd (Delran, N.J.)
Heather O'Reilly (East Brunswick, N.J.)
Lindsay Tarpley (Kalamazoo, Mich.)
Aly Wagner (San Jose, Calif.)
Lauren Cheney (Indianapolis, Ind.)
Natasha Kai (Kahuku, Hawaii)
Amy Rodriguez (Lake Forest, Calif.)