(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOSEPH WHITEAP Sports Writer
Abby Wambach, as usual, would not stop talking. On and on she went. To the point that her coach – her brand new coach, mind you – couldn’t take it any longer.
”I was standing up. I clearly remember it,” said Pia Sundhage, coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team. ”We had the team at a table, and she was sitting there and it was `rah, rah, rah, rah.’ And for me it was too much.”
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So Sundhage turned to Wambach and said: ”Shut up.”
”I think she was a little bit surprised,” Sundhage said. ”Of course, the team was surprised. They laughed a little bit and they went on. … I dared say `Abby, shut up’ to Abby Wambach.”
The exchange happened not long after Sundhage took charge of the U.S. team in late 2007, and it only served to prove what’s been known for many years: As hard as it is to keep Wambach from scoring, it’s even harder to keep her quiet.
Wambach smiled when reminded of the coach’s admonishment from more than four years ago. No doubt about it, she’s a gabby Abby.
”I’m a talker,” Wambach said. ”I’ll tell you how I feel at all times, and that’s something that my teammates, I think, have pleasantly had to learn.”
Wambach and the Americans are preparing for the London Olympics, having arrived in Portugal for the 12-team Algarve Cup that begins next week, and the 31-year-old striker is carrying a new title. Sundhage recently named Wambach a co-captain – or essentially the vice-captain to team leader Christie Rampone.
It makes sense, given that Wambach was already the team’s go-to spokeswoman and vocal locker room leader. It was Wambach, for example, who gathered her teammates on the field immediately after an Olympic qualifying win over Mexico in Canada last month and reminded them: ”We haven’t done anything yet.”
”Quite honestly, I was a little shocked that Pia wanted to change things up,” Wambach said. ”Not that she doesn’t like to change things up – she loves that part of sports – but I have so much respect for all of my teammates that quite honestly if I have the co-captain or captain band, I’m still going to be who I am. I’m still going to support you. I’m still going to yell at you. I’m still probably going to kick you in practice. I’m still going to make you the best player you possibly can be.
”I think Pia sometimes regrets it because I tell her exactly how I feel. First day, I’m like `How about this and this and this?’ And she’s like `Oh, God, here we go.”’
But Sundhage has learned how to deal with it. ”Shut up” has been replaced by kinder retorts.
”I’ve never met anybody like Abby,” Sundhage said. ”She’s a role model not only for women’s soccer. She’s a role model for women. … It’s a balance because she wants to help the team so badly, sometimes I just have to tell her: `Chill out.’ `Take it easy.’ But she has the biggest heart. … I don’t have to tell her to shut up today, because we have the relationship. We know each other and we respect each other.”
Wambach’s straightforward candor also acts as a guide for a coach who hasn’t quite mastered the art of the sound bite. Sundhage said she’ll sometimes listen to Wambach’s comments to reporters and think: ”Wow – that’s a good way to put it.”
Wambach’s role on the field is evolving as well, even though it would be tempting not to tinker with the forward whose 131 international goals now ranks second all-time to Mia Hamm’s 158. Sundhage’s new 4-2-3-1 formation has Wambach up front as the lone forward, using her strength to finish off goals with her devastating headers.
”I want her to emphasize to be the end product,” Sundhage said. ”She doesn’t have to be in the buildup attack, even though she wants to help the team.”
But there’s probably more evolving to come. Wambach and up-and-comer Alex Morgan have proved to be an imposing tandem when they’ve had a chance to be on the field together, and Wambach – being the outspoken one – sounds like she could be lobbying hard for more of the traditional 4-4-2.
”I’m not going to lie. I think we definitely play really well together,” Wambach said. ”Her skill set is, I think, completely opposite of mine, and that just makes for a nightmare for any defenses.”
The other tandem that seems to work well, at least so far, is the shared captaincy of Wambach and the more even-keel Rampone, another complementary mesh of styles.
”Abby’s awesome – the energy you see on the field is the same you see off the field,” Rampone said. ”Constantly talking. On the bus. In the locker room. At meals. It’s actually when she’s not around – we’re like, `What’s going on? This is so quiet.’ …. She likes to do more of the media stuff than I do, so I have her do more of the talking and I do more of the behind-the-scenes, so we’re definitely a good combination.”
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP