Abby Wambach was a fierce competitor as the Mexican national team learned during a 2005 friendly. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
This story appeared in BigAppleSoccer.com Oct. 27, 2004.
By Michael Lewis
Just when the women’s soccer world thought it was safe from dangerous, high-scoring forwards from the United States with the retirement of Mia Hamm, comes someone who might be even more imposing.
Meet Abby Wambach, who is poised to become the new face of American women’s soccer. She has all the ingredients to become a superstar. She is talented, can score goals in bunches, is a media darling, personable, opinionated, a selfless teammate and someone humble enough to know her place on the team.
The new face of the team? Wambach isn’t so certain, though the 24-year-old’s accomplishments rival and sometimes outshine Mia’s.
“When it happens, let me know,” Wambach said with a laugh.
“I’m just kind of going through this journey. I have a lot of years left in my career. If I can be fortunate as the women before me that played great soccer and won championships, I’ll call myself lucky. To have my face on this sport or not, that’s not my primary reason for being around. I want to win the world championship. Whatever comes along with that, I’ll take.”
The 5-11, 161-pound Wambach already has an Olympic gold medal, heading in the game-winner in extratime against Brazil in the final.
She scored at an amazing 79.2 percent rate (42 international goals in 53 games entering Saturday’s game against Denmark in Philadelphia), the best strike rate ever for a women’s player in the world. Yes, even more than Mia (57.8 percent), who has a world-record 158 goals in 273 games.
“I read that the only reason I had that record was I played for 17 years,” Mia said. “She won’t need to play for 17 years to get that many goals. I’d love it if she broke it. Hopefully that means they are winning world championships and she gets an opportunity to win another Olympic gold medal. That would be great.
“She’s a leader by example and by her words. She has such a passion for the game, and she has the ability to inspire others, including me.”
Since winning the gold medal, Wambach’s life has been a whirlwind, barnstorming the nation on a 10-game tour with the team and stumping for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
“It still feels like a dream,” said Wambach, who demonstrated her amazing scoring prowess in the 5-0 drubbing of Ireland in the Fan Celebration Tour on Oct. 31 when she tied a team record by scoring five goals in the final 43 minutes of the match.
“I do have moments when I think, ‘I can’t believe it happened,’ “ she added. “It still feels a little surreal to me. It may take six months for me for it to sink it. I don’t know if I have time for it to seep in to my skin and really appreciate it. ”
Like it or not, Wambach has become a celebrity. In her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., she can’t go out without being recognized and signing autographs.
“I don’t really view myself as this big-time celebrity person,” she said. “I feel that I’m an average person and I just did an extraordinary thing in an extraordinary moment.”
But others think celebrity. Wambach has been flooded with endorsement offers. She is taking her time shifting through the offers, negotiating with a sports drink company and a shoe manufacturer, for starters.
“I don’t want to be over-endorsed and I want to believe in the companies that I do endorse,” she said.
Come January, Mia and captain Julie Foudy, who also is retiring, won’t be there and the U.S. women’s team will be Wambach’s team.
“The real test of this team is to see how it performs when these women are gone,” she said. “We’ll see what kind of students we are.”
Wambach speaks of Hamm and the other veterans with reverence. “These women have in a lot of ways have given me my chance at this game and at this career,” she said. “The last game in December will be a sad day.
“The challenge for me is to have a league, to have the WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association) to start up again and to keep it going so not only 20 women in the nation can play and get paid and make a good living, but 120 or 200 women can do it. . . . They’ve set their standards really high. The bar is up there.”
And so is the hunger. Wambach figures the team has some unfinished business to do at the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China. The U.S. finished third last year.
“As soon as they wrapped the gold medal around my neck, I thought, ‘Oh boy, I want another one of these’,” she said. “That might be cocky to say, but that’s the drive of this team, the tradition. It’s great to win, but its better to keep winning. I want another one. The next few world championships are going to be difficult, way more difficult than we’ve ever been. Just thinking how good these teams are, it’s unbelievable.”
The scariest thing about Wambach?
Let’s leave that to former U.S. women’s national coach Tony DiCicco, who guided the team to a world championship (1999) and gold medal (1996).
“I don’t think we’ve seen her best soccer yet,” he said.