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Wambach Is the Next Big Thing

The U.S. forward, who is only 23, has a chance to be the type of towering presence Akers was during her 15 years with the national team.

September 24, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Another Michelle Akers?

It seems impossible to believe that the United States women's soccer team, after having the FIFA player of the century for the first three world championships, should suddenly discover her heir for the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup.

But it might have done so.

Abby Wambach, only 23 and in many ways still wet behind the ears, could be that player.

"She has the potential to dominate the women's game the way Akers did," said U.S. Coach April Heinrichs, who played alongside Akers when she scored 10 goals -- five in one game and two in the final -- as the U.S. won its first world title in China in 1991.

Akers also was there in 1995, in tears after a heartbreaking one-goal loss to Norway in the semifinals in Sweden. And there again in 1996, leading the team to the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. And there in 1999, overcoming a debilitating illness and inspiring the U.S. to its second world championship.

Wambach, to her credit, isn't buying into the comparison just yet.

"[Former U.S. coach] Tony DiCicco actually compared me to Michelle after the Founders' Cup game," she said of the Women's United Soccer Assn. championship game in San Diego last month, when her two goals, one in overtime, powered the Washington Freedom to the title.

"He said, 'I never thought I would ever be able to do this because of how much respect and love I have for Michelle Akers, and how much I loved the way she played, but of anybody, you remind me the most of her.'

"That is the most humbling thing and the most exciting compliment I've ever received. To be even on the same page as that woman, that's an accomplishment in itself.

"Michelle Akers is a legend on this team.... She groomed this team. She made this team what it is. She set those standards."

Right now, the comparison is based on potential, not accomplishment. It will take a couple of world championships and at least one gold medal to elevate Wambach into the pantheon occupied by the now-retired Akers. But she could do it.

Wambach, who is from Rochester, N.Y., made her World Cup debut against Sweden on Sunday and, even though she did not score a goal, her influence on the game was huge. Her height, heading, power and surging runs caused the Swedes problems for a full hour, forcing them to shadow her constantly and thus leaving other U.S. attackers unmarked.

When Wambach eventually came out of the game, her absence was obvious.

She is perhaps the most physical of the U.S. players, always involved in the rough and tumble, unafraid of launching her body into the fray and spending as much time on the ground as in the air. Her badge is the grass stain on a field of mud, bruises rampant.

Sunday's game was only Wambach's 15th with the national team, and she still is something of a newcomer, despite her steady rise first through the youth national team ranks, then at Florida and most recently in the late WUSA.

It was during the last season, while playing in tandem with Mia Hamm on the Freedom, that Wambach began to show what she could become.

"The thing about her is she's got strength and she's got speed," Hamm said. "She's great in the air. She'll win the ball for you, flick the ball on for you. She can finish in the air or finish on the ground. She's fearless. Tactically, she's getting better every single day. Technically, she works as hard as anyone to become a better finisher and better with her back to goal.

"Now it's making that transition to the international game and all the subtleties that individual defenders bring to a game and that a team defensively brings to a game. How do you exploit the weaknesses that are there?

"And you know what's awesome about Abby? She's so excited to learn that stuff and so excited to have the opportunity to try."

There was a time when Wambach wasn't so enthusiastic, and she admits it.

"A long time ago I wouldn't have even thought that I could be on this roster," she said, "but right now I look back on the past year and I've just worked so hard and I've done all the things I needed to do to get on this team."

The youngest of seven children from an Irish Catholic family, Wambach started playing at 4 in recreational leagues and recalls, "literally scoring 27 goals in three games, so they switched me over to the boys' league."

Akers also played against boys when she was young.

Now Wambach has the chance to follow Akers' path at the highest level too.

"But she's got work to do," Heinrichs said. "Because, I'll tell you, Akers was committed for all 15 years she was on the women's national team. So Abby has a lot of work to do, but ... she's also young and enthusiastic and she's uninhibited....

"She can help us, and I think she knows it now."

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