Pause To Savor Every Step Of Career As Wambach Readies For Final Chapter
MONTREAL, Quebec -- Two years before Abby Wambach made her first appearance for the national team, an afternoon under brilliantly blue skies in the Rose Bowl changed everything for women's soccer in the United States. Two days after she jogged onto the field for the first time with that team, what occurred in similarly crystalline skies above Manhattan, as well as above Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, changed so much for the country.
Those were the times she inhabited, that she influenced within the confines of a soccer pitch and experienced beyond it.
These are the times she inhabits now, in which her own marriage that wouldn't have been possible in any state when she debuted is now possible in all of them and heartbreak on the field four years ago has reignited the energy of that afternoon in the Rose Bowl.
She was then and is now. And so the clock pauses between the present and past tenses.
Rarely do we get a chance to savor that moment in quite this way.
Whatever happens in Tuesday's semifinal against Germany, it won't be Wambach's final World Cup game, at least not her final opportunity to participate in one. There will be either the championship game in Vancouver, British Columbia, or the third-place game in Edmonton, Alberta, still to follow, this sprawling country traversed one more time before she exits. While her soccer future is unclear, perhaps even dependent on outcomes here, meaningful games might even await in Brazil in next summer's Olympics, a potential third gold medal no small prize.
But the Olympics, to the only person whose opinion really matters on the subject, are not the World Cup. And while her fate hung in the balance in recent days against Colombia and China, too, those teams were not Germany, the team ranked No. 1 in the world and winner of two World Cups in which Wambach went home disappointed.
The final words in her story won't be written Tuesday, but there will be resolution. Either she moves on to play for the title that eludes her, or it remains forever out of reach.
"I think this is how you test yourself against the best in the world," Wambach said earlier in the tournament. "No matter if you've won world championships in the Olympics or not, the World Cup for us, for our sport, is the biggest title you can win as a team. And for me, I've never had the opportunity to win one. I've come close, but that's definitely, obviously a dream of mine, to be able to raise that trophy for my country."
This isn't, then, about how Wambach fits tactically in an American lineup or how much is left in her 35-year-old body. Barring a surprise appearance from Shannon Boxx, she is the only viable starter for either team Tuesday who started the semifinal the United States and Germany played in Portland in the 2003 tournament, but that doesn't mean she needs to start here. Plenty of people have made cases as to why the evolution of the sport at its highest level makes Wambach an anachronism, a relic of a too direct style that constrains the team. Others, most notably former United States coach Pia Sundhage, believe Wambach remains one of a kind as an asset but is best saved for a substitute's minutes in the second half of games.
Against Sweden, on paper if not ultimately in practice the team's most difficult group game, she didn't start. With two key starters missing and the team's streak of reaching the semifinals in every World Cup on the line against China, she didn't start.
Her presence is no longer a given, and coach Jill Ellis almost went out of her way on both occasions to note the moves were tactical as much as preventative maintenance.
Those are conversations worth having, the decisions on who and how to play so imperative to success. But so, too, is it worth appreciating the moment for a player who first played for her country in another game against Germany on Sept. 9, 2001, a 21-year-old forward not yet finished with her final season at the University of Florida.
It is not that she is ancient; it is how much history happened during her present. When Wambach played for her country for the first time at the senior level there was not yet an Under-20 World Cup. The Under-17 World Cup was even more distant on the horizon. The first attempt at a professional league in the United States was barely off the ground and still two years away from failing. What became the UEFA Champions League was just beginning its first season under the banner of the UEFA Women's Cup.
More than four years younger than Wambach but someone whose time with the national team is almost a perfect parallel, Heather O'Reilly watched the team's most visible presence grow right along with the sport.
"I think everybody grows up in their 20s, right?" O'Reilly mused. "I don't think any of us were as confident and sure of ourselves back then. Abby has, for the most part, grown up on this team, as I have. It's been fun to watch her really develop."
Wambach is a female athlete in a team sport who spent essentially her entire post-college career as part of the mainstream sports conversation in this country. Neither she nor the national team was always at the forefront of that conversation, particularly in those lean years before a Wambach header against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup tapped into the country's larger soccer boom. But people who didn't watch her knew her name. At the very least, they had the sense that she was the one who scored all those goals, ultimately more goals than any man or woman who ever played at the international level.
There is no better time in my life that I have than when playing for my country in the biggest event for us, in the World Cup.Abby Wambach
Who else had that life?
Mia Hamm played for her country for more than a decade before that country tuned in to the 1999 World Cup, or nearly as long if you prefer the 1996 Olympics as the sport's entry into mainstream consciousness. Perhaps Lisa Leslie in basketball came close. Maybe Jennie Finch or Cat Osterman in softball. Conceivably Misty May or Kerri Walsh in volleyball, if the two-on-two sand variety qualifies as a team sport in the same sense.
The timing of her career and the nature of her ability to dominate one specific facet of the game -- getting the ball to go in the back of the net -- set her apart.
And not always in a storybook manner. Hers was and is a workmanlike fame because she rarely tried to protect herself from that. People asked; she answered.
Her candor and extemporaneous style invited controversy long before she spoke about losing goals to the artificial turf in Canada or a referee's motivation for showing yellow cards to Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe. She supported controversial Women's Professional Soccer owner Dan Borislow, who passed away last year. She drew the ire of some for perceived gamesmanship in counting out the seconds Canadian keeper Erin McLeod held the ball before a pivotal refereeing decision in the 2012 Olympics. She is the loudest and most influential voice on a team that closed ranks around Hope Solo after her arrest on domestic violence charges. She continued to play after she sustained an apparent concussion in a game in the National Women's Soccer League, whose season she elected to skip this year to focus on the World Cup. And the list goes on.
She was heir to Hamm in the same way Andrew Jackson was to George Washington. The former got the mythic status. The latter managed a far messier reality of a country growing in fits and starts.
"Now my biggest challenge is carrying the weight of being the major goal scorer on this team," Wambach said nine long years ago in the buildup to the 2007 World Cup that was the first without Hamm. "And carrying the weight of what comes with that, the responsibility and the pressure. Whether it's the limelight, articles, pictures, endorsements, all of the things that come with that are things that I'm challenged with now. It's a new perspective, and I like that.
"If it gets mundane and boring, you'll probably see my game [suffer] and me say, 'See you later.'"
Nearly a decade later, she is still here. And it was rarely boring.
After the win against Nigeria in which her goal provided the difference on the scoreboard and her holdup play the difference in the run of play, Wambach spoke about wanting to savor the experience as it happened, to almost file it all away, knowing that what will feel like the lowest of lows if it ends with anything less than the trophy is still the high point of at least her professional life.
"There is no better time in my life that I have than when playing for my country in the biggest event for us, in the World Cup," Wambach said.
So here we are, paused between past and present until the whistle blows Tuesday night.