Commentary

Abby Wambach, a career in 11 acts

The highest national team scorer in the history will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame on Saturday (streamed here).

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Abby Wambach  grew up in a family of seven children -- the youngest, with two sisters and four brothers -- in Pittsford, New York. She took up soccer at the age of 4 when one of her older sisters wanted to play it. By the end of high school at Our Lady of Mercy High School, she was the nation's top prep player. But her career was only beginning.

Preparation for being a pro athlete

1998. Women's college soccer was still in its infancy when Wambach enrolled at the University of Florida in 1998. The big-time athletic programs like Florida in the SEC had only started forming women's varsity teams in the mid-1990s. There was only one team in those days: North Carolina, winner of 14 of the first 16 NCAA titles.

Wambach looked at UNC, as well as Portland, UCLA and Virginia, and also considered George Mason, but she decided to move to Gainesville to join the Gators on whom she felt she could have a bigger influence. Becky Burleigh's team was in just its fourth season, but it featured transfer Danielle Fotopoulos, who would set the then-NCAA scoring record with 118 goals in four seasons at SMU and Florida, and Heather Mitts, who would later team up with Wambach on the U.S. national team.

The brash Wambach's influence on the Gators was felt in her freshman season. Florida was leading Carolina late in the NCAA championship game, and Burleigh planned on using the television timeout to give some last-minute instructions when, as she later recalled to ESPN Magazine, Wambach came racing into the huddle and screamed, "We are not f---ing losing to these bitches!" Nothing more needed to said, and Florida won the national title, 1-0.

By the time she finished, Wambach had been named a first-team All-American three times and set Florida career records for goals (96), assists (50) and points (242). Returning to Gainesville a decade after her college career ended, Wambach said playing at Florida prepared her to be a pro athlete.

"It was by far," she said, "one of the biggest and most impactful things about me having success in my professional life.”




Under Hamm's tutelage

2003. The Women's United Soccer Association was in its second season when Wambach was selected second -- behind Danielle Slaton -- by the Washington Freedom in the league's college draft. She was named Rookie of the Year with a team-high 10 goals and 10 assists, finishing ahead of Mia Hamm, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury. Wambach helped the Freedom recover from a 2-4-3 start to make the playoffs, where it lost to Carolina, 3-2, in the final.

The next year, Wambach led Washington to the Founders Cup III title in a 2-1 win over Atlanta. She was named the MVP as she scored both goals, including the overtime winner with a sliding volley.

It would be the last time Wambach and Hamm played together at the club level. Shortly after the 2003 season, the league folded. A bond was formed between Wambach and Hamm, however.

"She was, and in some ways still is, a huge mentor for me," Wambach told FIFA.com in 2013. "I didn’t realize when I was young and we were playing together just how much impact and influence our relationship would end up having on me."

When Hamm retired a year later, she had scored a world-record 158 international goals. Wambach was only early in her national team career, but Hamm told her that she'd one day break her scoring record.

New star is born

2003. Only 23 and undeterred by the news of WUSA's demise, Wambach was the break-out star for the host USA at the 2003 Women's World Cup. She began the year behind veterans Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan on the U.S. depth chart up front, but by the Women's World Cup, Wambach was the focal point of the USA's long-ball game.

Her big game came in the quarterfinals when she scored what she described as the "biggest goal of my life," the winning goal in the 1-0 win over Norway that avenged a defeat to the USA's archrivals in the 2000 Olympic gold-medal game. The goal was vintage Wambach, a header off a free kick.

"The more physical, the better for me," she said. "That's my style. That's the way I want to play."

USA's defense of its world title ended in the semifinals when it fell to eventual champion Germany, 3-0. But it found a new star. Wambach led the USA with three goals.

Golden send-off

2004. Wambach's heading ability would be the difference when she scored in overtime to give the USA a 2-1 win over Brazil in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal game in Athens, Greece.

The game marked the end of one era and the start of another. Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and Hamm played their final competitive match for the USA, while Wambach was just beginning.

In the best year of her 15-year national team career, Wambach scored 31 goals and added 13 assists in 33 games for the USA. Only Michelle Akers with 39 goals in 1991 scored more goals in a single season.

"It's a fabulous way to win an Olympic gold medal," Wambach said, "and it's an even better way to send off these women, because they're what this is about. This is not about me, or the younger players. It's about them."

Hard loss to swallow

2007. The low point in the history of the women's national team program came in 2007 when it was humiliated by Brazil, 4-0, in the semifinals. The defeat ended a 51-game unbeaten streak for the Americans. It was the lone defeat of Coach Greg Ryan's career but it cost him his job.

For Wambach, the game was one of only two games in the 2007 World Cup in which she failed to score as she finished second to Brazilian star Marta in the MVP voting for the Golden Ball after scoring with six goals.

"It's a hard loss to swallow," she said. "But the thing about this team that I've always loved is that we've learned something from every mistake that we've made."

Wambach finished the year with 20 goals in 21 games to become the first American to score 20 or more goals in a season twice and she was named U.S. Soccer's Female Player of the Year for the third of six times.

The risk you take

2008. The USA returned to China a year later and got revenge for its loss to Brazil with a 1-0 win in the gold-medal game at the Beijing Olympics, but Wambach wasn't with the team. She broke the tibia and fibula in her left leg less than a month before the tournament in a friendly game against Brazil when she collided violently with Brazilian defender Andreia Rosa. She said she realized instantly her Olympic dreams were over.

"This was a deep down acceptance of my reality," she said after she had surgery to insert a titanium rod in her leg. "A lot of the times when you freak out about stuff is when you are more unsure of reality. It was an all encompassing moment. I wasn’t freaked out.”

As Wambach headed to the hospital in an ambulance, Hamm called, and Wambach, by then receiving morphine to ease the pain of her badly broken leg, answered.

"She said," Wambach would later tell AP. "'What are you doing, why are you picking up?' I'm like, 'Why are you calling me if you didn't want to talk?"'

Wambach says the injury didn't change her approach to the game. "This is kind of an occupational hazard and we all take the risk," she said, "knowing that this is possible every time we step onto the field. That’s sports. It’s the risk you take when you lace up your boots. I play one way and there’s no other way to explain it. I’m not going to take it easy just because it’s the last game before the Olympics.”

Picture-perfect ending

2009. Wambach's broken leg sidelined her for eight months, but she was able to look on the bright side. When she returned, she said the time off to rest her muscles -- but especially the mental break -- would extend her career five years.

She recovered in time for the start of WPS, the second women's pro league, and her return to Washington with the Freedom, this time without Hamm. She admitted she was clueless about the life of a pro and what it took to run a pro league when she debuted in 2002. But now she was ready to lead.

By the summer, she returned to the national team. Her broken leg left her on 99 goals with the USA. She went scoreless in a friendly against Canada in Toronto but scored in the return game in her hometown Rochester to become just the ninth player in the world to reach 100 goals.

"After this year I've had, the heartbreak of not going to the Olympics, all of that pain is worth it," Wambach said. "There's nothing more you can ask for than play in front of your home crowd and come through with a milestone like I did today. I couldn't dream of a more picture-perfect ending. I would give any Olympic gold to do that."

'Can you believe this?'

2011. Of Wambach's 184 international goals, she will be best remembered for one that didn't even on its own win the USA a game or win it a championship. But it is a goal that rallied the nation behind women's soccer like it had not done since the 1999 Women's World Cup.

The goal came in the 2011 Women's World Cup quarterfinals against Brazil. Only seconds remained in overtime and the USA trailed 2-1 when she rose to meet Megan Rapinoe's one last cross into the area. It happened to be a perfect cross and Wambach put the ball away with a patented header to even the score at 2-2. For days, Ian Darke's call of Wambach's goal was replayed: “Oh, can you believe this? Abby Wambach has saved the USA’s life in this World Cup!”

The goal only temporarily saved the USA. Yes, it went on to beat Brazil in a shootout, but two games later it would falter in the same format -- PKs -- and lose to Japan in the final.

Wambach's goal had a bigger effect, though. Everyone was talking about women's soccer again, easing the sting of another setback -- WPS, the second women's pro league, collapsed at the end of the 2011 season.

Winning with her 'big mouth'

2012. The most dramatic goal in the history of women's soccer was followed a year later by the most dramatic game in the history of the sport: the USA-Canada semifinal at the London Olympics. Three times, Wambach's archrival, Christine Sinclair, scored for Canada, and three times the Americans answered. Wambach's role in the comeback was not what she did with her feet or head, but what she did with her mouth.

Wambach has always been known for her big mouth -- her teammates once gave her a T-shirt that read "I’m talking and I can’t shut up" -- and it came in handy as the minutes wound down at Manchester's Old Trafford.

With Canada keeper Erin McLeod stalling each time she picked up the ball, Wambach started counting out loud to referee Christina Pedersen. To Wambach's amazement -- or so she says -- Pedersen whistled McLeod for time-wasting with 10 minutes remaining and ordered an indirect free kick in the penalty area. On the ensuing play, a handball was called, and Wambach converted the penalty kick to send the game into overtime, where the USA won, 4-3.

“Some people called me whiny for counting out loud, some fans said they thought it was brilliant,” Wambach told Toronto's Globe & Mail a year later. “I sat next to a Canadian on the plane and he said to me, ‘You didn’t win that game, the referee gave it to you.’ I laughed, but I understand how he felt."

The USA went on to capture the gold medal, and Wambach won her first and only FIFA Women's Player of the Year award.

Feeling the heartbreak of the team

2013. When Wambach finally broke Hamm's scoring record, it came with a flurry of goals. She scored four goals in a friendly against South Korea at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, extending her total to 160 and moving her past the record of 158 goals Hamm held for almost a decade.

"The night itself feels like a bit like a blur, but I think what was best about that night was how much my teammates wanted me to score goals," Wambach told USSoccer.com later. "It's not often you can feel the actual heartbeat of the entire team wanting something to happen so badly. Maybe it's because they wanted to stop talking about the record, but I'm so proud and it feels so good to know that my teammates wanted that to happen that night, and the truth is that I would do anything for the players on the team."

The truth is, she usually did. Her four goals in the 5-0 victory left the USA with a 101-2-8 record in games Wambach scored.

Finishing on top

2015. Wambach, at age 35, had won two Olympic gold medals but not yet lifted the World Cup. She knew she might play a limited role at the 2015 World Cup. But she scored the gamewinner in the USA's final group game, a 1-0 win over Nigeria.

In the 79th minute of the USA's 5-2 final win over Japan, Wambach subbed in for Tobin Heath. Carli Lloyd, who had scored a hat trick, offered Wambach the captain's band. Wambach said, "No, Carli." But Lloyd insisted.

And Wambach ended her World Cup career as captain of the world champions.

1 comment about "Abby Wambach, a career in 11 acts".
  1. Nick Gabris, September 21, 2019 at 11:13 a.m.

    Congratulations Abby, well deserved! Thanks for all of the exciting memories over the years with the WNT.

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