I remember when Abby Wambach really impressed me. It was during the 2011 Women's World Cup, which she entered with a very uncharacteristic scoring drought -- only one goal in half a year.
She went scoreless in the first two 2011 World Cup games, wins over North Korea and Colombia. The striker didn’t swear or pound the ground when her shots went off target. She actually smiled before sprinting back into action, as if she was thinking to herself, “That didn’t go so well. No biggie. Next time.”
Wambach scored in each of the next four games -- including the iconic goal against Brazil in the quarterfinals -- as the USA finished runner-up by falling in a penalty-kick tiebreaker to Japan in the final. Wambach, whose five goals the following year helped the USA win 2012 Olympic gold, looked like a leader whether things were going well for her or not.
This is not the case as Wambach struggles in Canada. On the field, her headers -- once her specialty -- are off target or hit weakly. She badly missed a penalty kick against Colombia. Off the field, first came her claim that perhaps the artificial turf was to blame for missed scoring opportunities. Even worse was her criticism of French referee Stephanie Frappart after the USA’s 2-0 win over Colombia.
Wambach suggested that Frappart may have been inclined to yellow-card Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe because they carried yellows into the game. As if Frappart wanted those two players to be suspended for the USA’s game against China.
Holiday was cautioned for her third foul in 17 minutes. Rapinoe was cautioned in the 41st minute on her fourth foul and second within a minute.
Frappart, keep in mind, ejected Colombia’s goalkeeper in the 47th minute and called two penalty kicks for the USA. That’s not usually the kind of officiating performance that yields criticism from the winners. Wambach, obviously, is a frustrated player.
Many of us thought Coach Jill Ellis would use the 35-year-old as a late sub to snatch goals against tiring defenses. Instead, Wambach has started and captained the USA in three of four games at the Women's World Cup. She scored in the 1-0 win over Nigeria, but her performances have not justified the faith Ellis has placed in Wambach and one wonders how her teammates feel about it.
The USA is still well poised to win this World Cup. It has an excellent defense, a kind draw -- one of the tournament’s two most impressive teams will be knocked out after the France-Germany quarterfinal -- and an Alex Morgan who’s looking fitter game by game.
But something seems askew with Ellis’ team. It hasn’t been much fun to watch and the players don’t look like they’re having fun.
It’d be unfair to place all the blame on Wambach for the team's four unconvincing offensive performances at the World Cup. But the quarterfinal game against China is a chance for Ellis to take a different approach -- and bench Wambach. The USA's all-time leading scorer no longer looks like the player who could laugh off a miss, come back stronger and inspire her teammates.