When we think of the warrior-like legends who have so fiercely and skillfully defended the U.S. Soccer crest, no man or woman could check any more boxes than Abby Wambach.
It’s not just that amazing resume, the one that shows a six-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year winner, the all-time leading U.S. scorer (men or women) and a national team figure for almost 15 years. It’s that competitive edge, that fearlessness on everything, from indifference to pending goal mouth collisions to her brave outspokenness on her sexuality. Wambach has long been the figure you want lurking near opposition goal and the person you stand near in a barroom brawl.
And talk about being a manufacturer of memorable, heroic moments! Who can forget Ian Darke’s fabulous call of Wambach’s late, late equalizer against Brazil in that 2011 Women’s World Cup elimination match?
Which is why it would be such a shame to see the 35-year-old forward, now clearly an athlete in winter, taint her amazing legacy.
Wambach hasn’t done that. Not yet. Not exactly. But she’s not doing herself any favors right now. And if she’s not careful, she risks being remembered as the aging goal scorer who went out as a complaining, wrongheaded and faded figure rather than the roaring, goal-scoring lioness of all those previous years.
Wambach was right to call out FIFA over the winter and then into the spring for its sexist stance on artificial turf. She made her point, and was 100 percent right; FIFA would never even consider holding a men’s World Cup on the fake stuff, but they filled up a women’s tournament with it.
But she had made her point! As the tournament started earlier this month, it was time to get over it already. Only Wambach didn’t. And when she missed three clear chances on headers in group play, the focal point of the U.S. attack made herself look bad by suggesting that scoring at the tournament – including her own – was suffering due to artificial turf.
It was the wrong sentiment at the wrong time from the wrong person. At 35, having inevitably lost some spring in her legs and having shorn her timing near goal by skipping club soccer over the last few months, making a case that errant headers are about the turf just doesn’t pass the smell test.
Consider what Wambach told the New York Times earlier this year, in frank self-assessment of her own performance at the time. “As you get older, you slow down a little. Then it’s a reaction thing. You’re too slow, and you’re too late, and then you’re like, ‘I hope it gets over her head,’ rather than beating your defender to the ball, using your pace moving forward as a force to beat the goalkeeper.”
Yep, sounds about right. So it’s not about the turf … only it was, according to Wambach last week.
Her latest, potentially toxic comments look even worse. Following Monday’s win over Colombia, Wambach suggested that first half yellow cards issued to Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe were somehow premeditated, that they were targeted. It was the second booking for both players, who now will miss Friday’s quarterfinal match against China. They were the only two U.S. players sitting perilously on one yellow and therefore in jeopardy of suspension.
Said Wambach: “It seemed like she was purposefully giving those yellows to the players she knew were sitting on yellows. I don’t know if it was just a psychological thing. Who knows?”
Well, “who knows?” just isn’t good enough when lobbing such accusations. Wambach has since walked back on those accusations – sort of, anyway. But the damage has been done.
The United States is a power in women’s soccer, not some oppressed minnow that FIFA suits would prefer to see eliminated. (And can we pretty please not start with the “FIFA wants revenge” angle?) Either way, those comments look pretty tacky. They make her team look bad – and make Wambach look like someone who needs to put a lid on it and just play soccer.
(Fox analyst and former U.S. international Alexi Lalas had his say about it, and it wasn’t pretty for Wambach; well done, sir.)
The next part isn’t necessarily Wambach’s fault, but it is an element of this larger conversation: Coming into the tournament there were already whispers that the older players, Wambach foremost among them, were de facto coaches. That started upon Jill Ellis’ hiring last year.
Wambach has remained part of the starting lineup and a focal point of the attack that has looked ordinary and predictable at very best. In combination with Alex Morgan, perhaps Sydney Leroux or Christen Press could help create a more dynamic dimension. This tournament may come and go without us ever knowing, because Ellis has hitched her wagon to the Wambach express, apparently content to live or die with it.
At the very least, we should have seen the last of Wambach from the penalty spot. Facing Colombia’s third string goalkeeper, who wasn’t even properly warmed up, all Wambach needed to do was put a ball on frame from 12 yards. Ouch! She didn’t even do that.
Wambach looks slow, and there is nothing she can do about that now. But you know what she can affect? Her professional comportment and her lasting image. She still has control of how she goes out in women’s professional soccer. She still (mostly) has control of her legacy, and she should treat it with utmost care. Especially when it’s so easy to do so – just play soccer! To the best of your ability.
Leave the politics and the protesting back at the team hotel, and be the Abby Wambach that U.S. soccer supporters have always admired.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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