Wambach Grows Into Her Role, Shoulders U.S. Women's Load

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

For years, the portrait of the U.S. women's national soccer team was of Mia Hamm's grace and Julie Foudy's energy, Brandi Chastain's exuberance and Michelle Akers's determination. Those players were part of a generation defined by not just winning gold medals at the Olympics and championship trophies at the Women's World Cup, but by the elegant and stylish manner in which it performed.

In many ways, not much has changed. The team has not lost in regulation time in nearly three years, thrusting it into the role of favorite to win the world title next month in China, and its presentation is as attractive as ever.

But amid a blend of speed, skill and sophistication, of fleet feet, bouncing ponytails and slender frames, Abby Wambach has changed the game.

Wambach is 5 feet 11 and around 175 pounds with an upper body like an armoire, only a trace of body fat and a fearless determination to get to the ball by any means necessary.

"You see her from a distance, she's pretty big," New Zealand defender Maia Jackman said, "but up close, she's imposing. I don't think there is anyone quite like her in our sport."

Wambach, 27, has been a U.S. team regular for five years, but with almost all of the " '91ers" -- that's what she calls the group that was part of the 1991 championship team -- now gone, Wambach has moved to the forefront of the American effort and carved her own large identity on the international scene.

She has moved to fifth on the U.S. career scoring list with 77 goals, and has done it in just 95 matches (a rate of more than four goals every five games). The only American to rival her consistency was Akers, who retired in 2000 with 105 goals in 153 appearances. Hamm, the all-time leader in goals and assists, needed 275 matches to score 158 times.

"If we are going to do well, Abby has got to get goals," U.S. Coach Greg Ryan said. "She's not the type of kid who goes, 'Oh, I am worried about that.' She embraces it and says, 'I am the player who will score the goals.' No questions asked."

Wambach plays in the middle of a three-player front line and, with her size and strength, is the target on high balls and the recipient of direct passes into the penalty area with her back to the goal. Opponents assign their biggest defenders to mark her and often double-team her. They try physical and sometime dishonest tactics, yet the goals keep coming.

"I have an all-time confidence right now and a stability that does not waver," said Wambach, whose team will play its final Women's World Cup tuneup Saturday night against Finland in Carson, Calif., before heading to China next week to begin final preparations for the 16-team tournament.

"I've set a standard for myself and, if I don't meet it in one game, I am going to make sure I reach it in the next game. I am not going to let anything stop me."

Wambach's determination was forged during her childhood in Rochester, N.Y. She was the youngest of seven children and, while her parents operated a garden center business, she was competing in sports against her four older brothers and other boys from the neighborhood. She was a four-year varsity starter on her high school basketball team.

At the University of Florida, Wambach turned her attention to soccer and scored 96 goals in four seasons, including 31 in 24 games as a senior to lead the Gators to the 2001 final four.

But her identity was truly formed the next two years with the Washington Freedom in the defunct Women's United Soccer Association. With Hamm as her mentor, Wambach's scoring and confidence grew.

"When I first got on the team, I remember Mia was out with a knee injury," Wambach said. "She just sat on the sidelines waiting for me to come off. I'd go up to her and just stand there, not say anything, and she'd say, 'What do you think?' That's how the conversation would start. I learned so much from her and became a better player because of her."

Playing alongside Hamm on the U.S. team, Wambach had a team-best three goals in a 2003 Women's World Cup campaign that saw the Americans lose in the semifinals to Germany and finish third. The following year, she scored an astounding 31 goals in 33 games and helped the team win the Olympic gold medal in Greece.

When Hamm retired later that year, Wambach had to adjust. "There was a big learning curve there because she and Mia had such a strong connection," defender Kate Markgraf said. "Now she knows what the right ball is for everybody out there."

Despite her size, Wambach is anything but unrefined. With deceptive quickness and agile feet, Wambach is adept at drifting to the flanks to collect passes and then run at backpedaling defenders.

"People mistake her for being one-dimensional; they underestimate how sophisticated she is tactically," forward Heather O'Reilly said. "I hate when people say, 'Oh, she has 30 pounds on the other player, that's why she scored.' That's not why."

Wambach believes that, with greater responsibility, her game has matured.

"My confidence was almost reliant on how well Mia and the other players did," she said. "Now I think the tables have turned a bit. I am more stable, like Mia and Julie were, and the players around me rely on me now."

And when all else fails, Wambach can always utilize her bruising presence to impact the match.

Said Markgraf, "You know you are going to have a battle with her all night -- and you know you are probably going to lose."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company