Losing Wambach will prove U.S. team's resilience
The broken leg suffered by striker Abby Wambach during Wednesday night’s 1-0 victory over Brazil in San Diego is a huge blow to the U.S. women’s soccer team but will not necessarily cripple its medal hopes.
Over the past two decades, the American women have time and again shown resilience in the face of misfortune, and Beijing 2008 should be no different.
The loss of Wambach, with her 99 goals in 127 international matches, subtracts significantly from the team’s offense, but Coach Pia Sundhage has other options up front--notably Natasha Kai, Amy Rodriguez and Heather O’Reilly.
Replacing Wambach on the Olympic roster will be 20-year-old UCLA forward Lauren Cheney, a former under-20 world champion who had been an Olympic alternate.
"Abby is one of the players who took all of us young players under her wing," Cheney said on U.S. Soccer’s web site. "She has always been there to help us out and guide us.
"Abby is irreplaceable, but I’m ready for any role I am asked to fill, and I’ll do anything I can to help the team win the gold medal. In China, we’ll be playing for our country and ourselves, but also for Abby."
What the U.S. will lack in China is the physically intimidating presence that Wambach brings to games. It takes a courageous defender to be willing to step in Wambach’s path when she is bearing down on goal at full speed.
If there can be such a thing as a thundering herd of one, Wambach is that herd.
Now, the U.S. will have to rely more on subtlety and guile. Speed and finesse come into play rather than brute force and finishing power. The ability to string together passes that can unlock defenses becomes paramount. Fortunately for Sundhage, her team has players who can do just that.
Rodriguez and O’Reilly provide the speed. Carli Lloyd, Aly Wagner and Lindsay Tarpley provide the passing skills. All five, along with Cheney, provide the goal-scoring ability. And if power is needed, midfielder Shannon Boxx is a more-than-able fill-in for Wambach when it comes to battling in the air for corner kicks and free kicks.
The U.S. will be fine. A medal is still a very real possibility. All Sundhage has to do is teach her players a little history.
In 1991, defender Megan McCarthy, a starter, tore knee ligament just before the first Women’s World Championship (it wasn’t yet called the Women’s World Cup) in China. Joy Fawcett was moved from midfield to defense, a teenage Mia Hamm took Fawcett’s midfield spot and the rest is history. The U.S. won its first world title.
In 1995, forwards Carin Gabarra and Michelle Akers, both world champions four years earlier, were injured. Gabarra hurt her back just before Women’s World Cup began in Sweden and Akers was injured seven minutes into the opening game. The U.S. still finished third and earned the bronze.
In 1999, Akers was battling chronic fatigue syndrome throughout the Women’s World Cup in the U.S. and had to be helped off the field at the Rose Bowl during the momentous final against China, but the U.S. nevertheless won the gold.
In 2000, Akers, still fighting CFS, withdrew from the Sydney Olympics just before the team was named, but the U.S. went on to win the silver medal.
In 2003, defender Brandi Chastain broke her foot in the first game of the Women’s World Cup, but the U.S. finished third and earned another bronze.
In 2007, defender Heather Mitts was injured just before the Women’s World Cup in China, but the U.S. still managed to finish third and collect the bronze.
In fact, in all eight world championship and Olympic tournaments, the American women have never come home without a medal. Chances are, they’ll have another by the end of August, and who is to say it won’t be gold.
-- Grahame L. Jones
Top photo: Abby Wambach (12) goes airborne after colliding with Brazil defender Andreia Rosa Wednesday night in San Diego. Credit: Robert Benson / US Presswire
Inset: Coach Pia Sundhage. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images