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Sept. 17, 2007
Wambach proves why she's the best in world

By Michael Lewis Editor

Abby Wambach has become the USA's most dangerous player.
Abby Wambach has become the USA's most dangerous player.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
Just when the women's soccer world thought it was safe from dangerous, high-scoring forwards from the United States with the retirement of Mia Hamm, someone else emerged who might be even more imposing.

Abby Wambach, the new face of American women's soccer, has all the ingredients to become a superstar. She is talented, can score goals in bunches, is a media darling, personable, opinionated, a selfless teammate and someone humble enough to know her place on the team.

If you've been waking up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the Women's World Cup the past week, you can't help but notice what a money player Wambach is.

Wambach scored the U.S.'s first goal and when she was getting stitched up for a head cut, the Americans literally fell apart without her in the lineup, surroundering two goals in their 2-2 draw with North Korea in Chengdu, China last Tuesday.

She added two more goals in the 2-0 triumph over Sweden in Chengdu Friday, the second one a candidate for goal of the tournament. While on the run, Wambach chested a pass from Kristine Lilly and half-volleyed it into the net.

As for being the new face of the team, Wambach isn't so certain, though the 27-year-old's accomplishments rival and sometimes outshine Mia's.

"When it happens, let me know," she said with a laugh.

"I'm just kind of going through this journey. I have a lot of years left in my career. If I can be fortunate as the women before me that played great soccer and won championships, I'll call myself lucky. To have my face on this sport or not, that's not my primary reason for being around. I want to win the world championship. Whatever comes along with that, I'll take."

The 5-11, 161-pound Wambach already has an Olympic gold medal, heading in the game-winner in extratime against Brazil in the 2004 final. Now, she has another victory lap within her sights -- at Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium in Shanghai, China after the WWC final Sept. 30.

While U.S. coach Greg Ryan stresses a team concept, no player is more valuable to the team than Wambach. No Wambach, no championship. It's that simple.

She has scored at an amazing 81.6 percent rate (80 international goals in 98 games), the best strike rate ever for a women's player in the world. Yes, even more than Mia (57.4 percent), who has a world-record 158 goals in 275 games.

"I'm glad she's playing for us," Ryan said with a laugh, "because she's a handful. She's strong, physical, athletic, dynamic striker, just a pure goal-scorer who will find a way. If it's not working one way she'll find another way. She's great in the air, great on the ground. Which is very fortunate to have her up front for us."

Hamm thinks that Wambach can become the best women's soccer player ever, which is high praise from someone of her stature.

"She's phenomenal," she recently said. "She loves to play and she loves to be the person who scores those goals. She has the potential to be as great as, with regards to that type of physical personality, as Michelle Akers. And to me, Michelle Akers is the best player who ever played. There's nothing Michelle couldn't do. Abby has that potential. She can score goals. She's a physical presence. She's a leader out there and teams are afraid of her."

Hamm, recently inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame felt that either Wambach or Lilly could be in a position someday to break her record.

"Absolutely and I hope they do," she said. "First and foremost, Abby's a friend and I want her to be successful, her, Kristine, or whoever it is."

Wambach has other things on her mind. She is more concerned about winning the Cup.

ďThat is so far in the distance for me I donít even think I can answer that question," Wambach said. "Who knows how long Iíll play? Who knows if my legs will keep up with the pace that Mia scored goals? Right now, my focus is on the World Cup and allowing Kristine to leave this game, if she so chooses, on top and as a World Cup champ.Ē

It is possible that a healthy Wambach could play in as many as four major competitions, which would give plenty of time and opportunities to surpass Mia. That includes the 2007 WWC, the 2008 Summer Olympics, the 2011 WWC and the 2012 Olympic Games.

Here's more bad news for the teams in China: since scoring the game-winner in the 2004 Olympic final in Athens, Wambach felt her game has improved.

ďIíve become a more complete player," she said. "I now kind of pick and choose my battles in terms of being physical. Iím not necessarily going in reckless like I feel that I used to. I get a lot fewer yellow cards. I had to sit out a game for a yellow card suspension in the Olympics and we ended up tying that game. After that Iíve tried to make it a point to be a little bit more of a responsible player for my team because I think that my team needs me on the field to win games.Ē

She has gone from being a role player to a vocal leader. Now, she has become the teacher, rather than the student.

ďItís a perspective change," Wambach said. "Youíre not a role player. Youíre not there to allow Mia or Kristine to be successful, you kind of have to take the responsibility on your shoulders. I still feel the same. I look the same, kind of. I have a few more wrinkles. But the fact is, when a job needs to get done, whatever that may be, there are people on this team who will step up and do it. Scoring goals is my job. Thatís what I love to do. . . . Now being a leader on this team and being a person that can, hopefully, help the younger and inexperienced players in world championships out, thatís my job. I think thatís what Mia did for me and hopefully I can do it for some of the younger players.Ē

Wambach keeps herself humble by remembering she is just another in a long line of exceptional American women soccer players. She knows she has a legacy of Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Lilly to uphold.

ďI live in the house that I live in and I drive the car that I drive in every single day because these women afforded me that opportunity," she said. "They paved the way, they are the pioneers. Theyíll probably be the first to say that there were many women that came before them, but really, for me in my life, they were very instrumental and inspirational. They gave me this opportunity to have the opportunity to play for this team and to be able to play just this as my source of income.

"It is the most motivating thing in my life to prove and say to them, whether itís directly or indirectly, you guys did good. What you see from here on out, the result, is championships and winning games. I think itís nice to see Kristine still playing because every time I question that or anytime Iím getting down on myself or on the team, Iíll look right at Kristine and say, man, she is a big reason Iím sitting here right now and living the life that Iím living.Ē

Wambach's driving force in China is her memories of 2003. The U.S. was bounced in the semifinals by eventual world champion Germany and she takes part of the blame for that bitter 3-0 defeat.

"My mark scored the first goal that day and Iíve been almost training with that in mind ever since so I have a little bit of a revenge factor," she said. "We got a little in the Olympics but Iíve never won a World Cup."

The scariest thing about Wambach?

Let's leave that to former U.S. women's national coach Tony DiCicco, who guided the team to a world championship and a gold medal.

"I don't think we've seen her best soccer yet," he said.

That's probably the last thing the rest of the women's soccer world wants to hear.

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