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WC hopes still lead through Wambach

Christie Rampone shares experience as member of USWNT
Christie Rampone shares experience as member of USWNT
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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AGE LIKE WINE

An older, wiser Abby Wambach still able to make grand statements for Team USA, writes Beau Dure.

Over the next year and a half, you’re going to be hearing a lot about Abby Wambach’s legs. As the United States women’s national team gets ready for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, an awful lot rests on them.

Under head coach Tom Sermanni, the USA has made long strides in building depth and diversifying its portfolio of attacking options. Fellow forwards Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux are budding superstars. But Wambach and her hammer headers remain a game changer. If anybody is going to lead her fellow Americans to a first World Cup title since 1999, it’s most likely to be her, the world record holder for international goals both for men and women -- 164 and counting.

Flanked by the swift Morgan and Leroux and a rotating cast of tricky wingers, Wambach is the focal point of the American attack. With a 5-foot-11 frame packing uncommon strength, she knocks down balls for teammates, poses an incessant aerial threat and generally occupies several opposing defenders at once. When the US attacks, all roads lead through Abby.

“If I get my crystal ball out now: in 2015 Abby is going to be a critical player to our success in the tournament,” says Sermanni. “She will be a very, very critical part of our squad at that time, barring anything unforeseen happening.”

Ah, the unforeseen. Here’s where things get a bit muddled. You see, Wambach will have turned 35 four days before the tournament kicks off in Canada. To put that in perspective: her predecessor as the record holder and team talisman, Mia Hamm, was 32 when she hung up her cleats. And Hamm didn’t play nearly so punishing a style of soccer as Wambach has for all these years.

Those legs from which she springs and shoots and sets up her peers, they take a beating. And by the next Women’s World Cup, they will have done so for a dozen years. All that time she has grappled and grinded and pounded. But she has never won a World Cup. And she’d quite like to win one. Which means her legs have to hold up. And they’ll have to do so on the artificial-turf fields soccer players despise. Five of the six Canadian stadiums selected currently have a surface that isn’t grass, a choice of which Wambach has been highly critical.

So until the Americans slip over the border, just across Lake Ontario from Wambach’s hometown of Rochester, New York, much of the conversation among the national team’s coaching staff will center around the management of her legs.

“As a 33-year-old veteran, I’m in the position where my focus is to be 100 percent fit and ready for the World Cup,” Wambach told FOX Soccer, which means that friendlies such as the contest with Russia (live, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET) in Atlanta require careful consideration. “I will be honest, it’s not at easy as when I was 23.”

ABBY ROAD

Click here for Abby Wambach's best momemts from her illustrious career.

Wambach added: “We play 11 months a year and that’s a long time and a lot of stress to put on the body, especially over a considerable career. You have to prepare your body to take the hits and take the beatings when you’re in those game environments. As you grow older, you learn what works for you.”

What works for her is a complex program of effort management and regeneration. Sermanni consciously eases her into each new year, slowly building up her minutes. “It’s like training for a marathon,” says Wambach. “I can’t get at my max fitness in 2013 to lead into 2014 and 2015. I have to peak and then valley so that when the time comes I’m ready to really turn up the volume before the World Cup so I can last those seven games.”

She dials down the aggression for practices. “I’ve definitely had to learn that,” says Wambach. “I needed to learn to control my physicality and my body, not just throw my body to the wind. I had to get a little bit smarter. As you grow older the aches and pains become a little bit more real and the regeneration becomes more important than the time you spend on the field during training.”

But the bulk of the work is done off the field. Wambach lifts weights; watches what she eats; takes ice baths; gets lots of massage therapy. She wears compression pants on occasion, which help to expel the lactic acid she builds up from her body. She sometimes sleeps in splints to keep the Achilles tendonitis that bothered her for the last two years at bay. She self-administers massages when her body tightens up. And she avoids running in her endurance training, opting for cycling, water-jogging or the elliptical machine instead, all of which are less harsh on her joints.

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But all of that effort is yielding results. “I feel like I’m fairly pain-free at this point,” says Wambach. It’s been some time since this has been the case.

“The fact that Abby is still playing at that level when the women’s game has moved on in the last years physically to a great level, it’s a testament to what she does looking after her body,” says Dawn Scott, the national team fitness coach, who oversees Wambach’s conditioning.

At her geriatric soccer age, Wambach can still peer far into the future: At the World Cup. Maybe even at the Olympics the following year. “I’m confident in my body and my ability to be able to perform when my time is called,” says Wambach. “I’ve done it long enough.”

She has. And if she can for another year or two, or even three, that would be dandy.

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