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USWNT’s Abby Wambach under pressure ahead

There are plenty of fascinating angles in the buildup to the United States against Sweden Women’s World Cup match, and former US head coach, current Sweden boss, and generally beloved mother figure to the women’s game Pia Sundhage added fuel to the fire on Monday.

Talking to the press, Sundhage pulled no punches. Between ripping Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo, Sundahge said that Abby Wambach would be coming off the bench, not starting, if she were still in charge of the US.

There’s no ill will from Sundhage – after all, the Swede called Wambach’s goal against Brazil her “best moment in football” in the lead-up to the tournament in Canada – just the kind of honesty that Wambach has always been known for herself.

Sundhage’s opinion that Wambach isn’t a starter for the US anymore isn’t even all that controversial. Wambach got the call, and the captain’s armband, for the States’ opener against Australia on Monday, but labored – missing two open headers and adding very little to an attack that was, for the most part, disappointing.

It would surprise no one if Jill Ellis, Sundhage’s former US assistant, benched Wambach against Sweden. Alex Morgan, returning to full fitness, could make her first World Cup start, or Christian Press could move to her natural position at forward with an out-and-out winger in Tobin Heath coming into the midfield.

Wambach didn’t just miss a couple of chances she would usually bury against Australia; she looked off the pace entirely – and with the majority of the 2011 World Cup starters on the bench in 2015, reputation alone won’t let the greatest all-time international goal-scorer in the game keep her place.

The pressure is on. Does Wambach deserve to play? We’re one bad game from that becoming a fierce debate.

Understand – Wambach has never shied away from controversy. In the lead up to this World Cup, she embraced it more than ever.

Wambach, remember, organized and led the players’ lawsuit against FIFA to play the World Cup on grass, made a very candid and somewhat disconcerting comment that she gets the ball in big games because her teammates can’t handle pressure, and made the decision to sit out the club season in the NWSL to rest and prepare for the World Cup with national team games and camps solely.

She also offered the most damning anecdote against Sepp Blatter since his “tighter shorts” when she told Grant Wahl that at a Ballon d’Or ceremony, the resigning FIFA boss thought her wife Sarah Huffman was Brazilian star Marta.

The two have zero resemblance besides the fact that they are both female, which corresponds unsurprisingly with the level of Blatter’s knowledge of the women’s game.

Wambach has been a force for change. Her constant introspection is reminiscent of Landon Donovan, but Wambach possesses a searing intensity that Donovan rarely possessed.

This tournament – maybe more than any other tournament in her career – is a passion project for Wambach. It’s her last World Cup, it’s revenge for the heartbreak of 2011, and more than that, it’s just the last and most important frontier in a truly stupefying career.

But if Wambach sits watching from the bench having squandered her chance in the starting lineup while the US wins the tournament, the triumph won’t be the same.

She needs to contribute, and, more likely than not, the US will need her to contribute too. It was the individual brilliance of Megan Rapinoe and the embattled Hope Solo – who, you can make a very convincing case, shouldn’t be playing at all – that beat Australia. Keep in mind that the Aussies might be the weakest team in this group, and it’s clear that the Americans have to improve.

Sweden is next, and the match could not hold more importance for Wambach: If she doesn’t play well, from the start or off the bench, she could be looking at a greatly diminished role.

This is the World Cup, after all. Good players who aren’t playing well don’t play. There is no time to search for answers, no place for considering reputations.

Sweden says they aren’t scared of the United States, but it’s not like anyone is scared of Sweden. The Swedes looked tactically naïve, rattled, and fairly mediocre in their opening 3-3 draw with Nigeria, in which they blew a two-goal lead and then went ahead again 3-2 only to draw.

This might be a good matchup for the US forwards, Wambach in particular. Sweden can’t match the Americans athletically.

Of course, both Wambach and Sundhage will remember that the US lost their final group match in the 2011 tournament to Sweden. That game meant that the US finished second in its group, and had to face Brazil in the quarter-final.

It was in that Brazil match that Wambach had her Brandi Chastain moment, a 122nd minute goal so iconic, so transcendent, that the footage is already used in the official FIFA broadcast intro for these games in Canada.

If the US lose to Sweden again, they may very well be looking at another second place finish, and a nightmarish trip to the outpost of Moncton to play Brazil again in the Round of 16.

The symmetry is clear. It was the Sweden game at the 2011 World Cup in which Wambach scored her first goal of the tournament, and from there, she played like a woman possessed.

She would go on to score in all of the Americans’ remaining games, growing so much in stature that the World Cup final against Japan was something of a 104 minute wait for Wambach to score the winning goal. It would be canceled out, of course, four minutes from time by another inspirational player, Japan’s Homare Sawa.

Wambach would be the only American to covert her penalty in the ensuing shootout. Problem is, 2011 Wambach feels a long ways away right now.

There is no real replacement for Wambach either. The US doesn’t have anyone like her because there is no one like her, in playing style, personality, and pedigree.

Perhaps Sweden, or Sundhage, or some combination of both can incite Wambach again. The US feels like a team right now, considering all the controversy, is hanging on by a very thin thread.

Can Wambach be the talisman again? We’re running out of time to find out.

 

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