Aug. 5, 2008
By Michael Lewis
A HUGE TASK
U.S. women must overcome no Wambach
Beijing, China -- No matter what the U.S. women's soccer team accomplishes at the Summer Games, its success or failure will be defined by someone who won't play a minute in Beijing.
|The U.S. women must overcome the loss of Abby Wambach is they want to defend their gold medal from the 2004 Olympics.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
Striker Abby Wambach, who scored the game-winner in the gold-medal match in Athens four years, will watch the games from her living room couch in suburban L.A.
The Americans' chances of taking home a third gold medal in four tries took a sudden downturn after Wambach broke her left leg in a 1-0 win over Brazil two weeks ago.
Even with coach Pia Sundhage's new strategy of possession soccer, the attack revolved around Wambach.
Sundhage, the first foreigner (Sweden) to direct the team, realized the U.S. faces a much greater challenge, although not an impossible one, even after losing two other regulars to knee injuries -- defender Cat Whitehill and midfielder Leslie Osborne.
"The U.S. can still win because this team is much more than one player or one coach," she recently said. "No one could replace Abby, though. We have to adjust our attacking a little bit. That's a challenge. But whatever we've done since November, they have embraced all these changes. Yes, we still can win the gold."
The Americans certainly will miss the physical, 5-11 Wambach, her 99 international goals and imposing play that has intimidated the opposition.
"I feel sorry for Abby," Sundhage said. "We have to move on. The team is strong. I think everybody will step up a little bit. That counts for the coaching staff and also for the players. . . . I think it would be foolish not to recognize that she is gone. That would be almost a lie. On the other hand, we cannot put too much emphasis on ab because she is a star.
The biggest question which players will emerge from a new generation and make an impact.
Among the candidates are Natasha Kai, whose 11 goals this year placed her second behind Wambach, Lindsay Tarpley (10 goals), Amy Rodriguez -- A-Rod to her teammates -- a 21-year-old who led Southern California to the NCAA Division I crown last fall and the versatile Angela Hucles.
"A-Rod -- she has speed. She has done a great job coming off the bench," Sundhage said. "Kai is fantastic in many ways. She's different because she is all over.
"Cheney, she has the size she could keep the ball and stretch out the team a little bit.
"The best thing about Hucles is that she's very versatile. She can play wide or central. She has the tools. She can play anywhere."
Sundhage plans to continue to use a 4-4-2 formation with perhaps a new wrinkle or two.
"We will change that a little bit in order to decide whether we have to play in front of the backline or in back of the backline," she said. "Abby is Abby. She gets so much attention. She creates so much space just standing on the player. We will have to run even more to create space for the team."
The midfield has veteran star Shannon Boxx, the promising Carli Lloyd, a Rutgers grad who disappointed greatly at last year's Women's World Cup after a productive start of the year, and Heather O'Reilly, who never has blossomed into the star of which many observers touted her.
Soccer moms Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone and Heather Mitts anchor a solid backline. Hope Solo, embroiled in a goalkeeping controversy with veteran Briana Scurry (an alternate) at last year’s Women’s World Cup, has re-established herself as No. 1.
The Americans should be good enough to get through the first round, in which they received a relatively easy draw vs. Norway Wednesday, Japan Saturday and New Zealand (Aug. 12).
It's the quarterfinals and medal round when things could get sticky against the likes of two-time defending world champion Germany, Brazil, which embarrassed in the WWC semifinals, 4-0, or North Korea.
Championships are always expected of the team that was defined by Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy. The U.S never has failed to finish in the top three of the two most important women's soccer competitions. That's five WWCs and the three Olympic -- two golds (1996 and 2004) and a silver (2000).
The Americans are Brazil of women's soccer. Anything less than a championship is considered a failure.
That's what makes the challenge so much more intriguing and greater without Wambach, who still likes the U.S.'s chances.
“It’s going to be important not to forget about this team because one of their star players has gone down," she said. "This team is special. I am a component of this team. . . . I do not encapsulate this whole team. With the missing parts, the bus moves a little bit differently but there’s no doubt that this team can win a gold medal.”
If the U.S. manages just to reach the gold-medal match at Worker's Stadium Aug. 21, that might be considered a major triumph in itself.