Nick Laham/Getty ImagesAbby Wambach has been a great player for the U.S., but the team might be wise to use her as a super-sub in Germany.
Perhaps the hardest job for any head coach in sports is assessing the status of a legendary player at the tipping point or beyond of their career. Recent examples include Brett Favre with the Minnesota Vikings and Jorge Posada (and dare I say it, Derek Jeter) with the New York Yankees. And it's very possible that U.S. women's national team star striker Abby Wambach could join that list at the upcoming 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Only three players in the history of women's soccer have scored more international goals than Wambach: U.S. all-time greats Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, and Germany's two-time Women's World Cup winner Birgit Prinz. The German captain, like her U.S. counterpart Wambach, is also on the wrong side of 30 now, and there is a quietly whispered school of thought that the Frankfurt fraulein can't make the contribution that she once did, either.
It's an intriguing subplot to what's going to be a dramatic tournament. This Women's World Cup will see traditional powerhouses such as the U.S., Germany, Sweden and Norway in the midst of a generational transition, while teams such as England, France and Canada feel they have a real shot at upending the big dogs. And pretty much everyone wants to see if the Brazilian magician Marta can finally carry her team over the championship finish line.
The U.S. has not won the Women's World Cup since 1999 (although it has won the past two Olympic gold medals), and it's the only accomplishment missing from Wambach's impressive résumé. Although the FIFA world-ranked No. 1 team, the U.S. has not looked anywhere near its dominating self since losing to Mexico in Women's World Cup qualifying last November and being forced to navigate playoff games with Costa Rica and Italy to gain a spot in the finals.
U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage is a 4-4-2 devotee, and is taking a lot of flak because of it. Folks with much more knowledge of the women's game than me also point to the draining physical demands for players attending U.S. training camps, while heading off to ports of call up and down the East Coast to play in WPS games over the weekend. But could it be that the U.S.'s struggles are a sign that Wambach, the generally acknowledged focal point of the offense, is gumming up the attacking works because she's nowhere near the player she once was?
It happened to Ronaldo at the 2006 World Cup. While his Brazilian teammates carried O Fenomeno to the World Cup all-time goals record in Germany, the effort caught up with them in the quarterfinals against France. In 2005, without Ronaldo, Brazil won the FIFA Confederations Cup, Ronaldinho and Adriano combining to produce a series of patented Samba-style displays. The next year at the biggest dance of all, with Ronaldo, then an aging legend back in the side, the dancing stopped.
In 2008, the U.S. women won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing after Wambach was sidelined just before the Games with a broken leg. Sundhage's Olympic team played with a lot more speed, and spent very little time pounding high balls up to the front line because there was no one with Wambach's height and power to get on the end of them. Heather O'Reilly thrived in a system in which the ball stayed on the ground, played either to feet or into channels, where she could exploit her speed and predatory finishing skills.
Now, O'Reilly's playing in midfield, using her speed on the wing to set up crosses for Wambach to get on the end of in the box. But Wambach isn't quite getting there at the moment. In seven international games in 2011, she's scored just one goal. Few players have ever been as committed to the cause on the soccer field as Wambach, but that give-up-your-body playing style takes its toll. And in the recent Japan and Mexico games, it looks like she's a step or two off from where she was even last year, and considerably off the pace from her form at the 2007 Women's World Cup, where she scored six goals in six games.
In Alex Morgan and Lauren Cheney, the U.S. has pace, finishing power and youth on the bench that could better serve the team's Women's World Cup chances by being on the field from the start. That would send Wambach to the bench, where she could be a potent weapon in the last 25 minutes of the game.
Last year, Spain men's head coach Vicente Del Bosque tried everything he could to get his injured strike ace Fernando Torres on track in South Africa, but in the end he reduced the roll of a great player who just couldn't be his best. Spain went on to win the World Cup.
Will Sundhage emulate del Bosque? Wambach's the face of this U.S. team, so it's a move that Sundhage almost certainly won't make. But I've got a feeling that she really should.