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ATHENS 2004

Sheer Abby

Wambach appears ready and able to step into a leading role

August 22, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

THESSOLANIKI, Greece — She is the heir apparent, the woman most likely to replace the legend. And she is perfect for the job.

Mary Abigail Wambach, better known as Abby, is a basketball player, a mountain biker, a hiker, and, above all, a soccer player.

"Soccer is my job, and I love doing this for a living," she said. "It gives me the most happiness that I can find."

More than that, though, at age 24, Wambach is a leader, spokeswoman and inspiration.

In short, when Julie Foudy retires after these Olympic Games, Wambach seems ready to step into her shoes, to take charge of the U.S. national team and, through sheer force of personality and will, put it back on top of the women's soccer pyramid.

But the heir apparent still lives in awe of the legend.

"Julie has been and always will be the leader of this team, in my opinion, Wambach said. "No matter who captains this team from here on out, Julie Foudy is the person that captain has learned from."

Wambach took note of a scene during a game against Australia last week: "There was an injury and the players came over and she was just talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking. I couldn't shut her up. It's like, 'Just have some water, relax, take a break for a few seconds.' No. That's not Julie Foudy's style."

It's not Wambach's style, either.

The former NCAA champion from Florida, former Women's United Soccer Assn. champion from the Washington Freedom and the offensive force majeur on the U.S. team can match Foudy word for word.

On the field, the 5-foot-11, 161-pound striker from Rochester, N.Y. is an intimidating presence, a player who attacks opposing defenses with speed and power. In 21 games in 2004, she has scored 17 goals, including one in each of her first three games at the Olympics, pacing the U.S. into the semifinals against Germany on Monday.

She has scored 31 goals in 43 international games since making her debut against Germany on Sept. 9, 2001.

April Heinrichs, the U.S. coach and a formidable player in her day, calls Wambach "a warrior" and said opponents have had to adapt their defenses in order to keep her in check.

"They're saying, 'Look, Wambach is a dominant figure and if you want to contain her you have to battle her physically,' " Heinrichs said.

And so Wambach spends quite a bit of time on the ground, shoved down, knocked down, tripped -- whatever it takes to throw her off stride. And when she battles back, because of her size, she is seen as the aggressor.

Two yellow cards in two games brought a suspension that saw her miss the game against Australia.

"She's a world-class player and if she's healthy and available, we would choose her to start," Heinrichs said. "She can impact games at any moment.

"The wonderful thing that Abby has put on display for everybody already at these Olympics is her mentality, her toughness and her sophistication and skill. The goal she scored against Brazil was a fantastic goal."

Heinrichs, captain of the U.S. team that won the World Cup in China in 1991, said Wambach could become the team's leader once Foudy steps aside.

"Very possibly," she said. "I mean, she's young. You never really know for sure who's going to step up. She has strong opinions. She's strong-willed. I think the thing I like most about her is her quality of mincing no words, supporting every teammate, being inclusive in every regard. And at the end of the day, her gut [instinct] is very positive and right most of the time.

"Abby has a good sense of what the game means, at a very young age, so I think she very well could be one of the leaders of the next generation. Certainly, in performance alone, she could."

With Foudy, Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett retiring after the Olympics, the U.S. teams is losing a wealth of experience and talent, and it is unlikely that one player alone can fill the void.

"I don't know how this team is going to continue on without these players," Wambach said. "I don't know what roles people are going to fall into. But somehow, someone is going to be a leader. If that's me, if the team and April choose me, I'm willing to step up and do whatever I can.

"If they call upon me, if that's my role, then I'm all for it."

Veteran goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who will keep playing for at least one more year, believes the leadership will be shared.

"I think she's great," Scurry said of Wambach. "She's definitely capable of taking a leadership role. She has an incredible desire and determination to win. She's very much a team player and is great on and off the field."

Scurry said the likelihood is that Wambach will share responsibility with more senior players such as defenders Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone.

For the moment, however, Wambach is playing and sounding like the leader, even with Foudy still on the field.

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