Wambach silences doubters during USA's dominant World Cup qualifying run
CHESTER, Pa. --
Quietly, almost inaudibly, there had been something of a murmur building. Whispers from those who wondered whether she still had it, whether Abby Wambach was still really Abby Wambach. She had been injured a lot lately. She hadn't really been top fit for any of the National Women's Soccer League season. It had been a while since she had turned in one of her dominating performances of old. She's turning 35 just days before the 2015 Women's World Cup opens.
A brazen few even questioned if the world-record goal-scorer -- for both men and women -- would make it to the World Cup at all. And if she did, how much she would play. Was she still essential? Could she still pivot the course of events in a game at the highest level?
When Wambach appeared on the starting lineup sheet of just three of five games in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2015 Women's World Cup, yet more began drawing conclusions. After Sunday night, there were no more questions.
Because on Sunday night, while the United States beat Costa Rica 6-0 in the tournament final to lift the regional title yet again, Wambach scored four times and collected an assist. The Americans played a more direct style against a physically short team, finding their target striker Wambach in the air again and again. She scored three times with her head and set up Carli Lloyd's goal with a header as well. On her fourth goal, after recording a natural hat trick in the first half, she converted with a chip of such preposterous precision as to belong in instruction manuals on the art of finishing. She ended the tournament with 7 goals, the most of any player on any team.
Costa Rica's manager Garabet Avedissian perhaps captured her dominance best: "All you can do, really, when Abby Wambach is playing like that, is pray," he said. "Pray that the ball doesn't get to her. There are other players like her that are big, but to find a player that can jump the way that she does and also manages to head the ball with the power and accuracy that she does is very unusual. And on top of that she's an extremely intelligent player."
Avedissian added that there was some 10 vertical inches separating his tallest player from the 5-foot-11 Wambach. This is surely an exaggeration, but it did feel that way.
As ever, Wambach's excellence wasn't accidental. If soccer looks like it comes easy to her, it masks a thoughtful design. Lately, she had felt like the timing on her heading was off. She'd done extra drills in practice to get it back. "Opportunities that I've had over the last five to 10 games with my head, I'm whiffing and thinking too hard about it," she explained. "Thankfully today my teammates put me in positions where I really couldn't think. I was set up to be successful."
Likewise, it isn't accidental that she's hitting such a good vein of form with her final World Cup just over half a year away. Wambach has carefully plotted out the two-year run-up to Canada, knowing that her battered legs, from all of those years of grinding and battling up front, can't just go all the time anymore. This is a slow march to her peak. "I'm like 60 percent there," she said, making one wonder how many goals she might produce at 100 percent. "It is a process and over the seven months until the World Cup, I just want to be continually, gradually climbing. The reality is it's a long seven months."
"This has kind of been our plan for Abby, to bring her back in," said head coach Jill Ellis. "I wanted her to play 90 tonight and fill the back of the net. And she did. She's made a really strong commitment to making sure physically she's ready for this and we can use her in multiple ways. The focus is crazy-good. She's really locked in and working on every facet of her game."
Wambach's management of her own body is meticulous and has made an impression on the younger players on the team. "She kind of understands best of all the ebbs and flows of a professional athlete and how to peak and how to take time off and when to come back," said fellow forward Christen Press. "When she says [she's at 60 percent], she knows it's true. It's not an estimation. She's been there, she's done it, she knows she has that much more to push and to give."
As for the matter of occasionally starting games on the bench, Wambach seems genuine when she says she isn't bothered. "As an older player you have to know what you're good at and what's going to make this team successful over seven games [from the opener through the final] at the World Cup," she said. "If you let your ego get involved -- of course everybody wants to play 90 minutes, but the reality is 90 minutes times seven games for a 35-year-old person may not necessarily be possible. I think Jill knows that."
"The strength of this team is in its depth, and the way you use that depth is to use many players," Wambach continued. "Players are going to have to come off the bench, maybe sit a game, and still come out the following game and produce."
In the end, the striker who has now scored 177 international goals and her teammates believe all will be just fine. The clock may be ticking towards the end of her career -- Wambach will probably retire either in 2015 or 2016 -- but the end isn't necessarily nigh on her efficiency and effectiveness. "Abby is in form when she needs to be, that's something that the team always knows," said Press. "That's a trust that we have in her."