Making her case
Wambach revives Cup dreams after wakeup callPosted: Thursday August 07, 2003 6:13 PM
Abby Wambach has spent the past two months visualizing what this fall will be like. She can see the stadiums full of fans, all the U.S. players, the Norwegians and Chinese and other foes. She can see plays developing out of midfield, challenges for balls, crosses from the flank, physical battles. She can see it all, really.
And she sees herself right in the middle.
It's a vantage point she couldn't enjoy earlier this year, when her Women's World Cup dreams were starting to look remote. But since failing to make the U.S. game roster for an April 26 friendly against Canada in Washington -- after failing to make the Algarve Cup roster, after failing to play at the Four Nations tournament in China -- Wambach has responded with superb performances in the WUSA and a two-goal effort against Ireland in her return to the U.S. lineup.
She has bolstered her position for one of 20 spots on U.S. coach April Heinrichs' World Cup roster and could, in Shannon MacMillan's absence, find herself playing a pivotal role for defending champions.
"Whatever the [roster] decision's going to be, I know it's going to be the right one," said Wambach, a big, imposing striker, whose national team career has been peaks and valleys. "I really believe that April's going to make the right decision.
"If that comes, that opportunity to step onto the field in a World Cup, in the United States, playing in front of my family with the national emblem on my chest, that'll be my proudest moment as a soccer player. And, you know, we all have dreams, and this is one dream that hasn't been fulfilled yet. I'm looking to do that now, and if I can keep playing well enough and I keep showing to April that I'm deserving to be on this team, as I think I am, then I think she's going to be confident in her decision."
LAGGING CONFIDENCE. Heinrichs didn't have a whole lot of confidence in Wambach the first four months of 2003. The forward hadn't returned from the offseason in prime condition, and her play suffered as her confidence lagged. She sat on the bench throughout the Four Nations, then was left behind for a February friendly against Iceland and the Algarve Cup. She wasn't at her best early in the Washington Freedom's campaign, and not making the roster against Canada hardly came as a surprise.
"April told me straight up what was going on and where I was on the roster, where I was in my chances to make the World Cup roster," said Wambach, the WUSA's Rookie of the Year last season. "She told me, you know, 'You've got a month, month and a half to prove yourself. After that the team is going to be named, and we're going to start to put together a starting lineup and try to find a bit of consistency within that starting lineup.' So I knew I had to do something. ...
"I'm probably my worst critic but best self-evaluator. I know exactly what I bring to the game. I know exactly when I play well. Some people have a skewed vision of how they play, but I know. And I know I wasn't playing well. I didn't play well pretty much in January, February, March and April. And then when I didn't get put on that roster [for the Canada match], it was kind of a wakeup call for me. It was, 'Great. If I'm going to do it, I've got to do it now.'
Two weeks later, Wambach was unstoppable, scoring a hat trick in the Freedom's 4-1 win over Philadelphia. Two weeks after that, she had three assists in a 4-0 romp at New York. Three weeks further on, she beat up on the Irish at Salt Lake City.
"I think I stopped worrying mostly about everybody watching me," she said. "I started playing my own game. ... I was so unhappy because I wasn't playing well, and I was so unconfident, and I think you have to find confidence within yourself, and I was looking other places for it."
Heinrichs says she's impressed, that "all the signs are she's going to continue that upswing." The U.S. coach, a former forward, has liked what she's seen in Wambach against Finland in April 2002 (Wambach scored her first international goal) and against Scotland last September (her first international hat trick). And against Ireland.
"The most important thing," Heinrichs said, "is that she realize -- and I think she is starting to understand this -- that she has total control -- total control -- of her performance and competitiveness. Some players, it takes them six years on the national team to understand it. Some players never get there. But I think she's going to get there much sooner than most because her self-esteem is so strong.
"And the sooner she understands, the more she'll be a consistent player for Washington and a consistent player for the national team."
ON THE BUBBLE. At the moment, Heinrichs says, Wambach remains on the bubble, but MacMillan's torn anterior cruciate ligament, suffered in mid-May, has "opened doors of opportunity for several players, and Abby's one of them."
MacMillan is trying to return for the World Cup, an unlikely event, and her absence deprives Heinrichs of one of her most dynamic and singular weapons and hinders the Americans' attack from the right flank. Wambach, too, offers something different, her size and strength, and plays with a physical dimension few players anywhere can match.
"I'll throw myself into any tackle," Wambach said. "I'll do anything for anybody on the team at any second. ... So much of my game is based on my heart and wanting to win so bad I'll do anything to get there."
Heinrichs will weigh Wambach's strengths against others', against Heather O'Reilly's speed and Lindsay Tarpley's brain and whether another defender is more vital than one more forward.
Number-crunching suggests Wambach likely will make the cut. Mia Hamm, her Freedom teammate, weighs in on her side.
"You can't not look at her," Hamm said. "She's a totally different kind of player than we have on the [national] team. She scores goals, and whenever she's in with the national team, she works hard, extremely hard, and in the WUSA, in practice and in games.
"I'd take her on my team. I'm glad she's on my team."
Wambach can see herself there, on the RFK Stadium turf for the U.S. opener, the U.S. crest on her chest.
"I can't control the decisions that April or [assistant coach] Bill Palladino or Phil [Wheddon, the goalkeeper coach] make for the final roster," she says. "But I'm playing well, and I'm confident in myself, and all I know is I'm trying to make it as hard for them as possible to keep me off that roster. The only way I can do that is to keep playing well and keep playing confident."
Scott French is a senior editor at Soccer America magazine.