Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the number of Olympic gold meadals won by Wambach. This version has been corrected.
VANCOUVER — The date is seared in Abby Wambach’s mind, a daily cue reminding her and the rest of the U.S. women’s national soccer team of what they missed out on four summers ago in Frankfurt.
“July 17, 2011,” she said pointedly.
Wambach said she does not remember the date of her U.S. debut or first goal, her pro championship with the Washington Freedom a dozen years ago, the two Olympic gold medals or the day she became the greatest international goal scorer. She does, however, remember when the United States lost to Japan in the World Cup final, a match that was decided on penalty kicks after the Americans surrendered leads late in both regulation and extra time.
Four years on, it still gnaws at her.
“It’s always there, and that is what happens in heartbreak,” Wambach said ahead of Sunday’s championship rematch at sold-out BC Place. “Heartbreak never goes away, but now we have an opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity for the Americans to win their first cup title since 1999 and become the first country to hoist the Women’s World Cup trophy three times. It’s an opportunity to celebrate with thousands of traveling supporters who have trekked across Canada for four weeks and flooded this waterfront city in a swath of red, white and blue.
It’s an opportunity for the current generation of players to shake free of constant comparisons to the 1999 squad.
And in her fourth and final attempt, it’s an opportunity for Wambach to win the only treasure that has evaded her.
“That fuels our fire. That motivates us,” she said of the 2011 setback. “We know what that feels like from four years ago, and it’s not a good feeling.”
Ten days before the World Cup began, Wambach was asked whether she needed a world title to complete her extraordinary portfolio.
“You’re damn right I need it,” she said.
Wambach’s pursuit this year comes in a secondary role. At 35, she is no longer the daily focal point of the U.S. attack. She did start three of the first four matches, scoring the lone goal in the group finale against Nigeria, but those assignments came in large part because Alex Morgan, returning from a knee injury, was not ready to play 90 minutes.
Wambach was a late-game substitute in the round of 16 and quarterfinals. In all likelihood, with Jill Ellis’s squad in rhythm after defeating Germany, Wambach will wait her turn again.
Wambach said she is okay with her place in the squad and doing what best serves the team. It does feel different, she admitted, after starting for a dozen years.
“It’s nerve-wracking. It’s brutal. I’m not saying this because I’m sitting on the bench and not playing, but it’s taking years off my life,” she said. “I now understand why parents say how stressful it is because you don’t have any control about what is going on unless you are on the pitch.”
Ellis met with Wambach several times ahead of the World Cup to discuss the striker’s role. “She has been exemplary,” Ellis said.
As Wambach embraced the new role, her teammates embraced her, knowing it’s the final go-round. Wambach has not announced her retirement from international soccer, but following this tournament, Ellis is preparing to integrate more young players ahead of next year’s Olympics in Brazil.
Wambach’s bond with longtime teammates continues to endure.
“I could play with her with my eyes closed,” said midfielder Carli Lloyd, the team’s leading scorer in this tournament with three goals.
“I always know where she is going to be. I always know what she is thinking. She has been a true leader. We wouldn’t be where we are without her. And I want nothing more than to help her legacy by winning the World Cup. I want to win it for myself and the team, but being her last one, I will do whatever it takes.”
Defeating Japan in the 2012 Olympic final in London softened the World Cup blow a year earlier, but a victory Sunday would turn the page on the 1999 spectacle.
“It’s been a lot of years between ’99 and now, and it’s time,” said defender Christie Rampone, a member of the ’99 squad who, at age 40, is also playing in her last World Cup. “After this game, hopefully we end up on top and it grows the game of soccer. I hope it’s not compared to ’99 anymore. I hope it’s leading on to the next team that wins the World Cup.”
This year, while the Americans (5-0-1) have made continual improvement as the tournament has transpired, Japan has won six consecutive one-goal matches. It secured passage to the final Wednesday on an own goal by England’s Laura Bassett in the dying moments in Edmonton.
The Japanese team will also say goodbye to a revered player, 36-year-old midfielder Homare Sawa, who is in her record sixth World Cup. Like Wambach, she has made periodic starts in this tournament.
“She has had such a storied career. I was so happy she was able to win that 2011 World Cup because she put the team on her back,” Wambach said. “That was their time.”
Maybe, on Sunday, it is the U.S. team’s time.