NEW YORK – During a much earlier part of her career, U.S. women’s national team forward Abby Wambach never would have considered watching the game from the sideline.
In those days Wambach would impose her will on many overmatched defenses for the entire 90 minutes.
But as she enters the twilight of a record-setting career, Wambach is not willing to concede much, except that maybe she doesn’t always have to be on the field for every minute.
The United States opens the World Cup on Monday against Australia in Winnipeg. Wambach, who turned 35 on Tuesday, remains a central figure in her team’s chance at winning its first Cup since 1999.
U.S. opponents may see Wambach in doses, but as usual, they will be strong ones.
Years of physical play have taken a toll on Wambach. She admits that she might need a breather or two. That’s a small concession, but a rare one coming from someone as driven and competitive.
“As a competitor I want to play every minute of every game,” Wambach said last month in New York. “But as a realist, knowing I will be 35 when the World Cup kicks off.”
The idea was clear. She is secure with her place on this team and in history to know that this deep U.S. team might be able to save her some minutes in this tournament.
Wambach raved about how coach Jill Ellis and her staff used several combinations in matches leading up to the World Cup. And some of the time, that meant Wambach wasn’t on the field.
“Their mind was on Games 5, 6 and 7 in the World Cup,” Wambach said of the coaches’ decisions to use so many combinations. “It will all be for naught if we lose Game 5 in the World Cup.”
Make no mistake: Although Wambach has announced this would be her final World Cup, she plans on hanging around to the end. That means Game 7.
Has she lost a step? No question. But Wambach can still be a major difference maker, an accomplished finisher in a tournament in which there is usually a short supply.
And to this day, no one in the game remains more dangerous in the air than the 5-11 forward. Wambach is the world’s all-time leading international goal scorer with 182. Of those goals, 77 have come in the air.
“Abby is somebody who has given everything she could possibly give to this sport,” Ellis said.
And yet there is still more to give. As recently as the 2012 Olympics, Wambach wasn’t leaving the field very often. She started all six games, scoring five goals as the United States defended its gold medal. Wambach played all but 13 minutes.
In addition to her work on the field, Wambach is the soul of the team. She keeps her teammates loose but has also counseled many teammates seeking her advice.
“One reason everybody respects her is because of her authenticity and that has continued to make her such a leader,” midfielder Lauren Holiday said.
And now she will be leading in her final World Cup. The days of always being on the field have likely ended, but the will to be a champion has only gotten stronger.