Abby Wambach, U.S. women’s soccer ready for latest World Cup test
By Michael Birnbaum,
Moenchengladbach, Germany — For Abby Wambach, the stunning last-chance goal that saved the U.S. Women’s World Cup team against Brazil on Sunday was another key shot in a long career full of them. But despite her extensive list of accomplishments — Wambach is third in U.S. women’s national team history with 120 goals — she only has one international title. Wambach would like another, and should the United States defeat France in Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal, she’ll get that chance.
Since she first played with the U.S. team in 2001, Wambach has contended for and lost two World Cup championships. Her goal against Brazil in 2004 gave the United States an Olympic gold medal, but she sat out the 2008 Games after fracturing her tibia and fibula in a collision during the final warmup match before the competition.
“Abby has scars all over her skull,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said Tuesday, partly in awe.
This may be the last chance at a World Cup title for Wambach, 31 — only one player on the current U.S. team is as old as Wambach will be in 2015, the next time the quadrennial competition rolls around.
“Losing is not an option,” Wambach said. “It’s going to be a physical game.”
To prepare for another grueling match, Wambach sat out Tuesday’s practice — something she has done other times this tournament — to rest her right Achilles’ tendon , which has bothered her for about a year.
For much of this World Cup, Wambach has appeared to be the U.S. team’s wise elder, but not the powerhouse who once averaged nearly a goal a game during her best stretches representing her country.
This time around, she has struggled both with accuracy and with the persistent Achilles’ injury. Wambach, who has spent much of her professional soccer career playing for the Washington Freedom, had difficulty getting the ball into the net during group play. Kicks hit the post, headers went wide. She scored a goal during the United States’ loss to Sweden in last week’s group-play finale, but it was a ball that deflected off her shoulder.
In France, the Americans face a powerful but inexperienced team. France’s only previous appearance at the World Cup came in 2003, and it didn’t get past group play.
Both teams are looking at each other warily, even if the Americans have a sense that their route might be slightly charmed after the sudden turnaround against Brazil.
U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage spoke Tuesday of the “bumpy road we’ve taken” in the quest for the World Cup, with lackluster first-round play culminating in the surprising loss to Sweden. “We’ve done our homework” for the match against France, she said.
The United States, which defeated Brazil in penalty kicks on Sunday despite playing a large portion of the game with only 10 players, will contend with a French team that has had an extra day to rest and strategize. The U.S. players said Tuesday that they had barely come down from the adrenaline of their thrilling victory before it came time to gear up for the next match.
But Sundhage and several players said that fatigue was a secondary concern.
The win “created so much energy,” Sundhage said. “At the same time, we played many minutes.”
The United States wasn’t the only team to have made a buzzer-beater comeback this tournament. On Saturday, France staved off elimination against England on penalty kicks after tying the score with less than two minutes to go in regulation.
The Americans will be playing with at least one fresh set of legs, because defender Rachel Buehler will be forced to sit the game out after receiving a red card against Brazil. Becky Sauerbrunn, a former University of Virginia player, practiced with the team on Tuesday, though Sundhage would not say whether she planned to start her.
France Coach Bruno Bini — who in addition to more orthodox exercises preps his team with readings from Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine — said that his players were ready, especially after their last victory in which “in the 86th minute of a match you’ve already seen yourself packing your bags.”
He said that France’s extra day of rest before the game would simply even the match. “The American players are physically in better shape, so they should be fine,” he said. “It’s quite fair.”