USWNT’s turf debate confirms line of succession is in good hands

HONOLULU —

The Abby Wambach Farewell Finale took a big detour in Hawaii this week when the United States women’s national team took a bold and rightful stand. The players took one look at the horrid turf at Aloha Stadium on Saturday morning and announced they would not play.

A national TV game off the air and with 15,000 ticket-holding fans disappointed, this was a justifiably defiant moment that was years, if not decades, in the making. Equality, fairness, safety and player health were at stake. After pay wars and turf wars over the years — many of which the U.S. women’s national soccer team backed down from in order to play — this was a very telling moment, on so many levels.

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In that moment — canceling a game that was the centerpiece of a Pearl Harbor commemorative weekend — came crystal clear indication that the torch of leadership has already been passed from Wambach, 35, to her youthful protege, Alex Morgan. It was the 26-year-old superstar striker who roundly blasted U.S. Soccer for sticking the U.S. women’s team on a dog-eared, rock-strewn piece of deteriorated old carpet.

"I think the training grounds that we were given and the playing surface of the stadium were horrible,” Morgan said. "I think it’s hard because no one’s really going to protect us but ourselves. So we’re put in a very hard position because obviously we want to play in front of these fans and we want to train before the game but injuries happen when you don’t protect yourself and when you’re not protected from those higher up from you."

Even before the team had officially decided to cancel the game, it was Morgan who stepped up to speak out. She didn’t wait to be told what to do, nor did she back down when the U.S. Soccer handlers attempted to interfere in a press interview.

"I think the team needs to be a little more vocal … about whether this is good for our bodies and whether we should be playing on it if the men wouldn’t be playing on it," Morgan said.

"We’ve been told by U.S. Soccer that the field’s condition and the size of the field are the first two talking points of when they decide on a field, so I’m not sure why eight or nine of our 10 Victory Tour games are on turf whereas the men haven’t played on turf this year. There have been zero games, so that’s a concern of mine," Morgan said.

Whereas Wambach is the kind of personality that will issue heartfelt stream-of-consciousness monologues about her thoughts and feelings, Morgan is more measured and tactical. Yet, it is now clear, the different styles are aimed to achieve the exact same results. The Hawaii game cancellation, it turns out, confirms that the line of succession for leadership on the U.S. women’s national team is in very good hands.

Wambach was ready to walk away from the U.S. national team long before she finally announced her retirement at the end of October. When did she know her historic soccer career was over?

"When the whistle blew," said Wambach after the U.S. had won the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. Wambach, who stuck around for one last shot after the devastating loss in the 2011 Women’s World Cup loss to Japan, shuffled to the stands at B.C. Place and threw herself into the outstretched arms of her wife. She could leave the game with the final piece of her legacy now in place.

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

Her future, she says in typical Wambach fashion, will be bold. Asked what she wants to do, Wambach is true to her grand form.

"Everything and anything. I’m going to change the world and I’m talking to everyone in the world that I can possibly get into a room that has the ability to help me do that," Wambach said. "I’m going to do anything I can do to change the world, whether that’s getting to be part of FIFA or creating some sort of movement to actually take part of real equality across all lines, in every sector, every industry, across all lines in every country, every city in the world. That’s what I’m going to do next. I have a team of people and I’m strategizing. I’ve got many people I trust in my circle and we’re looking at every angle."

No doubt, Wambach will use her force-of-nature personality to make inroads, to go places, to be a presence and a change agent. Morgan knows it, though the end of this chapter for the U.S. women’s national team is a dramatic one.

"I’m sad but I’m also happy for her," Morgan said. "I know she’s going to do great things off the field and probably continuing somehow in the women’s game, but I’m sad because she was my partner on top for a really long time. She was the player who when I needed confidence she gave me that. She was a great leader on this team, so that’s going to be difficult, but we’re going to be honoring her at every game this trip. It’s really hard to say goodbye to her. She’s done so much for this team."

Of course, one of the greatest things Wambach has done is be a friend and mentor as well as a scoring partner for Alex Morgan. In a world where marketable athletes take the safe road to protect their endorsements, where speaking out is seen as bad for the bottom line, Morgan is not like Michael Jordan. She’s just like Abby Wambach.