Abby Wambach Sparks U.S. In Women's World Cup -- Again

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As Abby Wambach walked onto the field at BC Place on Tuesday for the national anthems that preceded the game between the United States and Nigeria, she turned her head and glanced around in an almost casual way.

Where most players in that moment stare straight ahead and do little more than try to avoid awkward eye contact with the camera that follows them, she appeared to soak in a crowd of 52,139 so full of red, white and blue from across the border that it might have qualified as an invasion between neighbors less cordial than the United States and Canada.

For a 35-year-old in her fourth World Cup, the philosophical implications seemed limitless.

As it turned out, she was just looking for her wife, Sarah Huffman, in the sea of faces.

"I wasn't able to find her in the first game [against Australia], so I blame me not scoring goals on not being able to find her," Wambach said after this game. "It was her fault, of course. Everybody else's fault but mine."

She stopped, paused, and made sure those who were listening knew she was joking.

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Abby Wambach scored the first -- and only -- U.S. goal on Tuesday night to lead her team to a 1-0 win against Nigeria, locking up first place in Group D and a favorable spot in the knockout stage of the Women's World Cup.

It had, after all, been an interesting week when it came to her words.

As only someone with more goals than anyone in the history of soccer could, Wambach's actions spoke the loudest in the end, her first- half goal the difference in a 1-0 win for the United States that clinched first place in Group D and a far more advantageous route through the tournament's knockout phase than second place would have afforded.

Four days after she came off the bench for the first time in a World Cup since 2003 but was unable to prevent an equally rare scoreless draw against Sweden, and three days after her comments about the artificial turf in all tournament venues affecting goal production generally and her play specifically, Wambach was indispensable for 90 minutes in a game the United States largely controlled but struggled to put away.

She remains both a talismanic figure for the United States and a tactical headache for foes.

One is not the same without the other. Both are necessary for the U.S. to win the World Cup.

"She embodies a lot of the spirit of this team and our program," United States coach Jill Ellis said. "Her leadership is tremendous, her spirit is fantastic. So when I met with her [after accepting the coaching job last year], I said, 'Listen, I've not predetermined your role; your role will be as big as you can deliver.' That's exactly what I said to her.

"I just know Abby. I know big moments, I know she'll deliver. I was really pleased with the investment tonight."

The goal itself was only part of the performance, as she took advantage of a well-placed screen from Tobin Heath, freeing her to make a run toward the far post on a Megan Rapinoe corner in the 45th minute of a first half that had no stoppage time. The ball was driven on a relatively low trajectory and instead of heading the ball, as she so often has in scoring 183 career goals for her country (and as she did in setting up Julie Johnston for what appeared to be an early goal waved off for offside), Wambach leapt and volleyed the ball with her foot.

The goal leaves Wambach tied with former German star Birgit Prinz for second in Women's World Cup history, behind only Brazil's Marta. With only 45 minutes to spare, it also gave her at least one goal in the group phase of every World Cup in which she has played. It was a goal, the method of finishing notwithstanding, that explains why Ellis jokingly said she would still have included Wambach on the roster if she had but one leg.

She is a force unlike almost any other on set pieces. She is also more than that.

A day after she sat in the same place and perhaps to her displeasure answered questions about Wambach's comments about the turf, Ellis talked about how the forward changed the look of the American attack. With both Wambach and Alex Morgan in the starting lineup together for just the fourth time this calendar year, the United States looked, if not dynamic, then at least more free flowing and assertive than in its first two games. There were sparks, if not outright flames. And central to that was the ability to play through Wambach.

"I thought she held the ball up well," Ellis said. "Listen, we knew we weren't going to get behind them, so it was important for us to play in front of their line and try and pull them a little bit, especially in the first half where they sat a little deeper. I thought she held the ball up well for us. When she needed to give movement and support -- everything we talked about and focused on in this game was giving angles and giving options for the player on the ball because we knew the pressure was going to come pretty quick."

The United States really is better with her on the field for as many minutes as her body allows at this stage of her career. It seems the team believes it's better with her on the field, too. That part isn't tactical. It is a quality that isn't tangible.

No one has observed Wambach's trajectory in quite the same way as Christie Rampone. Already an established player for the national team when Wambach arrived on the scene, Rampone on Tuesday became the oldest player to compete in the Women's World Cup when she came on as a second-half substitute to help protect the lead (she turns 40 on June 24).

"Abby always has it," Rampone said. "When it comes to big-time games and big moments, she always comes out on top. She's that leader, that voice that everybody needs out there, as well. She's out there dictating and giving everybody the confidence. You're going to see more out of her each and every game. Getting the goal tonight definitely helped her, and I think you'll see more out of her the rest of the tournament."

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Johnston, who was barely a teenager when Wambach made her World Cup debut 12 years ago. A lot of people deserve credit for someone like Johnston -- who was named the player of the match by FIFA -- playing as well as she has in her first World Cup. The list starts with central defensive partner Becky Sauerbrunn, goalkeeper Hope Solo, Rampone and Ellis and her assistants. It also includes the forward who she watched from afar and then watched from very close quarters.

"I vividly remember one [early encounter with the national team], there was a cross coming in and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I have to mark Abby,' because, yeah, she is so great in the air," Johnston said Tuesday. "But those are the players I wanted to play against. I wanted to play against the best, I wanted to learn from the best. Even if I'm just defending her, I'm learning. That's what I want to do. I want to learn as much as I can about this sport."

Where Wambach leads, people follow.

Is Wambach the best in the sport? Maybe not at 35 years old. Maybe not for the entirely of 90 minutes. Maybe not for seven games in a row in this tournament.

But there are still those moments, and not rare ones, when she commands the field.

She helped bring the crowd to BC Place with what she and her teammates did in the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. She sent them home happy.

And she helped the United States move closer to the only prize that eludes her.

"I do want to take in and stop and smell the roses for moments, at least," Wambach said. "Because in the short term, yeah, there could be heartbreak, right? But in the long term, big picture, this is massive for women's football. Amazing turnout. And I don't want to forget about those things, no matter what the results are on those given days.

"No matter how this turns out for our specific team, this is still a fantastic show of what we're able to accomplish in 2011 kind of snowballing into where we're at now. I mean, we're playing home games here in Canada with how many fans we're getting, that are coming across the border. I can't tell you how amazing that feels."

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