(Eds: With AP Photos.)By NOAH TRISTERAP Sports Writer
Abby Wambach hopes to keep playing until the 2015 World Cup – a goal that suddenly looks a lot less daunting for the 32-year-old striker.
That’s because Wambach – the second-leading scorer in U.S. women’s national team history – now has plenty of help up front. With 28 goals in 2012, Alex Morgan has emerged as Wambach’s ideal complement. Both are finalists for FIFA world player of the year, and these two standouts have put themselves in the record book alongside some of the most famous names in American soccer.
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”Alex has kind of prolonged my career, I think, because I’ve had so much fun reconnecting with another forward,” Wambach said. ”It took a lot of time to find her, but we finally did.”
Nine years apart in age – and each with her own distinctive style on the field – Wambach and Morgan are putting the finishing touches on a year to remember. The highlight, of course, was winning Olympic gold in London, but now the two are chasing a different kind of history. Wambach has 23 goals in 2012, leaving her and Morgan with a combined 51 – four short of the record for an American duo.
Michelle Akers and Carin Jennings scored 55 goals in 1991.
”It just came very natural for us, playing together, as I continued to get more playing time this year,” Morgan said. ”I think that we just got each other on the field.”
They seem to have little in common at first glance. The 23-year-old Morgan is from California. Wambach is from Rochester, N.Y.
The 5-foot-11 Wambach soars through the air and scores with powerful headers, like her game-tying effort against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup that saved the U.S. from elimination.
Morgan does most of her damage at ground level, thanks to a devastating combination of speed and touch around the goal.
”Abby is getting in the air, winning the air game, playing physical and posting up,” U.S. fullback Kelley O’Hara said. ”And Alex is that flashy, get-behind-the-defense and get those shots off those breakaways. They both are, hands down, the best players in the world at what they do.”
It was Morgan who scored perhaps the most memorable goal of 2012 – with her head, ironically – in the 123rd minute of an Olympic semifinal against Canada. The 4-3 win sent the U.S. to the gold medal match against Japan. The Americans won, avenging a loss to the Japanese in the World Cup final a year earlier.
The Olympic champions are now in the middle of a 10-game ”Fan Tribute Tour” – which includes Saturday’s matchup with China at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Only two Americans have scored 30 goals in a calendar year – Wambach (31) in 2004 and Akers (39) in 1991. Morgan has a chance to join that exclusive group.
”I’m definitely trying to improve myself as an all-around player. Obviously, I have the fitness, I have the speed and the strength,” Morgan said. ”But it’s working on my heading, that Abby’s the best in the world at. It’s my awareness of the players around me – Abby’s definitely helped me with that.”
When the U.S. made its run to the final of the World Cup last year, Morgan was a sub, coming off the bench to provide speed and energy up front. Given a bigger role in 2012, Morgan has responded with a breakout reminiscent of Wambach’s eight years ago.
In 2004, with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy nearing the end of their careers, Wambach scored the winning goal – on a header, of course – to beat Brazil for the gold medal at the Athens Olympics.
Now it’s Wambach who wants one more shot at her first World Cup title. She’s still scoring at a prolific pace, and with the improving Morgan at her side, there’s no telling what the future could hold.
”She’s a young up-and-comer, and she’s going to take over, I think, this team. … It gives me a lot of relief, actually, to eventually retire, because I know the team will be in good hands,” Wambach said. ”In the end, if she always focuses her attention on her performance, then everything else will fall in line. I don’t know. I think in the next four years, we’ve got some fun things planned.”