HARRISON, N.J. -- Let's rewind four years.
It's June 5, 2011, and the U.S. women's national team is walking off the grass inside Red Bull Arena having just beaten Mexico in its final send-off match before the 2011 Women's World Cup.
Except it wasn't much of a send-off.
Abby Wambach remembers looking around. The place was mostly empty. The official attendance for that day was listed at 5,852, the lowest total for a World Cup send-off match in program history. (The attendance for the team's last match before the 1991 World Cup is unknown.)
If a final tuneup match is, in part, a pep rally, then that day in 2011 fell far short. Perhaps other women's sports are used to quarter-filled arenas, but since the whirlwind of the 1999 World Cup, women's soccer had occupied rare air: The team and its star players were relevant.
Not niche relevant, but relevant-relevant.
Looking around, a number of questions came to Wambach's mind: Was that "it" factor gone? Had she and her teammates been the ones to lose it? And, more importantly, would they ever get it back?
The star forward cares about these things, because she wants to leave U.S. Soccer the way she inherited it. She wants young players to be able to see this team and dream of one day making it, of playing in front of sold-out stadiums, of being on the cover of magazines, of making a living playing a sport.
In short: Wambach wants to be a capable custodian.
Well, on Saturday evening, 26,467 people packed into that same Red Bull Arena (capacity is officially 25,189) to watch the U.S. and Korea Republic play to a scoreless draw, and to send off this team to the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
Now this seemed like a pep rally.
So that answers one question facing this team: People care again. Here we are, with the U.S. women's national team as the premier women's team in the country, and about to open World Cup play against Australia on June 8.
Of course, fans in seats are just the wallpaper, the (very) loud background noise. That doesn't matter, not really, for the overarching goal of winning the World Cup. Because no matter how much people have cared -- and over the years, a lot of people have cared a great deal -- this team has still lost the past three World Cups.
And for Wambach, that last fact matters as much as any, because another part of being a capable custodian is doing what her predecessors did at the Rose Bowl in 1999. The Rochester native feels she must return U.S. Soccer to the pinnacle -- not just in popularity, but in on-field success.
That's where things get tricky. Because it might just be that for Wambach to get the thing she's always wanted, a World Cup title, the 34-year-old won't need to play harder (her trademark), but smarter, more efficient.
And more than that, she might even need to play less -- as in, fewer minutes. As in, perhaps in some World Cup games the most effective role for Wambach won't be as a starter, but as a super sub, someone who assesses the flow of the game during the first half, then comes in for the final chunk of play and knows exactly where the seams are, exactly how to strike.
Or maybe some games she'll be a starter, go hard for 60 minutes, and then make way in the second half for Amy Rodriguez or Alex Morgan. (Morgan missed Saturday's match with a bone bruise in her left knee; she hasn't played during this send-off tour and head coach Jill Ellis said the team will likely have to build her minutes in the early matches of the World Cup.)
Ellis said she believes Wambach's role in the World Cup will be fluid. "She can start; she can come in off the bench," Ellis said. "I think there will be certain games it will benefit us to have her come in and close a game. I think there will be other games that she starts. I'm confident I know a lot about what Abby can give us. It's situational. But also, she's so clutch and used to performing at the high level, and we have a lot of young players. So I think her experience helps us."
Wambach will be playing in her fourth World Cup. On Saturday night, she started and played 60 minutes. In the first half, she missed, by inches, scoring what would have been the game's only goal. Defender Meghan Klingenberg delivered a beautiful cross that just missed the head of a soaring Wambach.
The role Wambach plays on this team is complex. As the U.S. has evolved toward a more possession-oriented game, Wambach as electric, one-time finisher seems less useful, especially alongside forwards such as Sydney Leroux, Christen Press, Morgan and Rodriguez, all of whom can bring down the ball and play with it at their feet.
On the other hand, the U.S. is not yet a fully evolved team, and it's a nice option (read: crutch) to have Wambach -- her size, athleticism and poise in the air are unmatched -- as someone to play the ball to. As she told the New York Times last week, "Because people are a little bit scared, they're like: 'I'm going to pump that ball up to Wambach, see what happens. I don't want to play this little 5-yard ball, because if I pass it and it gets picked off and we get scored on, then it's my fault.'"
Midfielder Carli Lloyd said the magnitude of the situation is certainly dawning on some of the team's newest members. "We have some players who haven't been a part of a major tournament like this. And maybe the nerves are setting in."
In many ways, Wambach is still the heart and soul of this team, as well as its captain. When she jogged off the field on Saturday night, she first stopped by Tobin Heath, who was waiting to enter the game, and offered some fiery words. Then Wambach took a seat on the front row of the bench and watched the final 30 minutes.
So much has changed since that June 5, 2011 game here at Red Bull Arena.
"I believe in the individual brilliance that's going to happen within the collective mindset in Canada in nine days," Wambach said right after the game. "Everybody has to take ownership of their game, how they're going to impact this team positively in the World Cup. We're going to stick to the plan. I believe in our plan, and I believe in our coaching staff's plan."
But will this plan, this new formula, be enough to finally get it done?