These were perhaps going to be the Hope Solo Olympics for the U.S. women’s soccer team. Or maybe the Alex Morgan Games. Instead, they belong so far to the old reliable, Abby Wambach, who has scored in every match to lead the Americans into the semifinals.
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The 32-year-old striker slid onto the ball in the 27th minute Friday to knock home her fourth goal of the tournament and then led a celebration of cartwheels – a tribute to the gymnastics team – in the United States’ 2-0 win over New Zealand in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament.
”Everything she does on and off the field, she leads this team,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. ”She’s in a good place, that’s for sure.”
Sydney Leroux added an insurance goal in the 87th minute for the two-time defending Olympic champions, who will play the winner of the Britain-Canada match in Manchester on Monday.
Wambach extended her U.S. record with her eighth career Olympic goal – a mark she holds despite missing the Beijing Games with a broken leg – and pushed her international tally to 142, only 16 behind Mia Hamm’s world record. For most of the year, she has yielded much of the scoring load to youngster Morgan while using both holistic and traditional treatments to treat the nagging Achilles tendinitis that has bothered her for some three years.
”I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline, I’m not quite sure exactly what the reason is, but I’m not going to ask questions at this point,” Wambach said. ”I’m just playing pain-free for the first time in a long time.”
New Zealand coach Tony Readings called Wambach ”a nightmare,” and the sight of the 5-foot-11 veteran battling multiple defenders and picking herself up off the ground has become so commonplace that her teammates hardly notice.
”Oh, we turn a blind eye to all of her bumps and bruises,” goalkeeper Solo said. ”She hits the floor, she hits the ground, it doesn’t even faze us any more because she’s tough. She might be hurting, but she’s mentally tough. She has more of a lion and a passion inside that nothing will stop her, and she’ll find a way to win. It rubs off on everybody.
”But maybe we should probably go up to her and say, ‘Abby, you OK?”’ Solo added with a laugh. ”But we just ignore it.”
Wambach’s scoring spurt is remarkable given all the attention she draws from the opposition. Even though her speed isn’t what it used to be, she’s still one of the strongest players in the game and is unmatched in the air – yet three of her four goals at the Olympics have come with her feet.
On Friday, she supplied the finishing touch to some hard work from Morgan, who took a long ball from Rachel Buehler, juked one defender and threaded the ball through two others toward the net. Morgan said it was a shot, but it turned into her third assist of the tournament – finding Wambach’s sliding right foot at the far post.
Wambach and the U.S. players, always looking for novel ways to display their happiness, then ran to the corner of the field and started doing cartwheels before the crowd of 10,441 at venerable St. James’ Park, home of Newcastle. They tried to stick their landings – something akin to what they saw on television from Gabby Douglas when they watched the American gymnast win the all-around title on Thursday.
”We obviously don’t do it quite as well,” Wambach said. ”But we wanted to send a shout out to all the gymnastics.”
No one has publicly criticized such celebrations by the Americans at these Olympics, but the New Zealand coach said it’s something he wouldn’t want to see from his players.
”I wouldn’t like it if our team did that,” Readings said, ”when teams concede and they’re disappointed and they want to get on with the game. But it’s obviously something the Americans do. … It’s something I guess they work on in training. I hope we try to work on scoring goals and stopping Wambach and Morgan. We haven’t got time to work on celebrations. If it makes them happy and they win games, then good on them.”
Sundhage said she’s been fine with her players’ antics.
”I’m not a psychologist,” the U.S. coach said. ”We score goals, and you’re happy. What the players want to do, whatever they do, it has to be fun. If they come up with ideas, that’s perfectly fine.”
Solo recorded her third consecutive shutout, although once again she was rarely challenged. The Americans haven’t allowed a goal since France scored twice early in the first half of the Olympic opener.
”We haven’t been really tested,” Solo said. ”I’m waiting to still get tested, but that’s what happens when you’re ranked No. 1.”
New Zealand, ranked 23rd in the world, was making its first appearance in the knockout phase of a major tournament. The Football Ferns have lost nine straight to the U.S., with their only win in the series coming in 1987.
Even though they’re on a winning streak, the Americans had trouble turning control-of-play dominance into goals for the third straight game. They led Colombia 1-0 before getting two goals late in the second half and beat North Korea 1-0, albeit after slowing the game down in the second half to save their legs for the quarterfinals.
Morgan was just wide with a pair of solid scoring chances, and Morgan and Wambach both had scary collisions with New Zealand goalkeeper Jenny Bindon. Wambach kicked Bindon in the head in the first half, and Morgan did the same in the second half.
Morgan’s collision left her with a charley horse and she soon left for Leroux, the youngest player on the team and the only one who wasn’t on last year’s World Cup squad. It didn’t take long for Leroux to score her first Olympic goal, outpacing the New Zealand defenders with a run down the left side and beating Bindon with a strong left-footed finish.
There were no cartwheels from the 21-year-old forward after the ball went in. Just unbridled joy.
”I didn’t plan anything because I went crazy,” Leroux said. ”I was unaware that I scored, I think. I blacked out, I’m pretty sure. I was just, like, going crazy. … I think I almost starting crying and the game wasn’t even over.”