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Wambach uses her physical skills to lead the U.S. women's soccer team, but it's her attitude that links her to past glory and also sets her apart

August 11, 2007|Philip Hersh | Special to the Times

CLEVELAND -- Her veteran teammate, Kate Markgraf, says an angry Abby Wambach is like a raging bull.

Greg Ryan, her U.S. women's national soccer team coach, likens how Wambach frequently used to act, both in style of play and interactions with teammates, to a bull in a china shop.

Wambach agrees those descriptions are no bull.

"I'm a very straightforward, direct person. When I have a goal, I see the end line, and there's no stopping me getting there," Wambach said.

The good thing for the U.S. women's soccer team, which plays its penultimate tuneup match for September's World Cup against New Zealand on Sunday at Chicago's Soldier Field, is Wambach now mainly limits her running roughshod to opposing defenses. She overpowers them with her size and strength and, lately, also befuddles them with touch and tactics. It all helps make Wambach the team's best goal scorer.

"She almost disregards pressure -- in a healthy way. She thrives on being the person to make a difference in a game. Like all truly great athletes, this mentality is what separates her from the pack," said Julie Foudy, the team's retired captain, who knew Wambach when she was only 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds of rough edges.

Once balls leave Wambach's head and feet, they reach the net at a faster rate than any other player in the distinguished history of this team.

In 94 games since her debut in 2001, Wambach has scored 75 goals -- 34 on headers. Former U.S. star Mia Hamm, the leading scorer in women's soccer history, had 158 goals in 275 games.

With Hamm still on the team, Wambach was its leading scorer in both the 2003 World Cup and the 2004 Olympics. She helped Hamm, Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett -- the so-called "91ers," members of the team that won the first women's World Cup in 1991 -- go out on top by scoring the winning goal in overtime of the Olympic gold medal match against Brazil.

In a sense, that goal was her gift to Hamm, a thank-you for what Hamm had given her during the years they played on the national team and the since-defunct women's pro league.

Sitting in a Cleveland hotel restaurant, nearly three years after Hamm's retirement, the boisterous Wambach becomes quietly reverential when discussing her gratitude. "She definitely opened my mind to beating players with your brain more than your feet and your muscle," Wambach said. "Father Time will eventually take its toll. Either your career will end, or it can blossom into something new."

At 27, Wambach's physical skills are at their peak. Her muscle means opponents often double-team her, but Wambach now thinks fast enough on her feet to get the ball to the teammate such coverage leaves open. "Abby is the most dominant physical presence I have ever witnessed in the women's game," Ryan said. "Her improvement is on the technical and tactical end."

The tactful end too. Wambach has become less inclined to castigate younger players, more likely to act like a wise elder, as she has done with teammate Natasha Kai.

How could Mary Abigail Wambach be anything but assertive as the youngest of seven children in a Rochester, N.Y., family?

When she tired of the siblings tricking her to steal her French fries when they ate at McDonald's, Wambach came up with an aggressive solution: As soon as the fries arrived, she bit each one in half and put the pieces back in the box. Who would want to eat what their sister had slobbered on?

"Abby speaks from the heart, but she has grown up and learned there is a time and place for everything," said U.S. captain Kristine Lilly, the lone "91er" still playing. "She is not changing who she is for anyone, which I respect, but learning how to be a leader, be an example, unite the team."

When the other 91ers retired in 2004, after winning a second Olympic titles in three tries and two world titles in four, the team's leadership fell to the soft-spoken Lilly and other veterans such as Markgraf, Shannon Boxx and Wambach,

Most wind up on their rear after physical contact with Wambach.

"She just runs through people," Foudy said. "I remember thinking at times, when I played against her, that I just had to get out of the way. Add to the recipe that she is fearless, and you have a double chocolate layer cake."

Wambach's size isn't always a blessing. She frequently was criticized for lack of fitness after joining the national team. Referees are inclined to find her guilty of a foul every time an opponent falls after colliding with her. When she falls, the refs accuse her of diving, so smaller defenders often get away with hacking her mercilessly.

"I don't blame them," she said. "It's their only defense. And it's a compliment. Humbling. If people want to waste a lot of time and energy trying to mess my game up, that means they are more fearful of me."

It has been a bull market for Wambach goals ever since.


Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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