Abby Wambach was back on the soccer pitch Saturday night at Sahlen’s Stadium, raring to go after missing the Western New York Flash’s first two matches with a left orbital fracture.
“I’m all healed up,” proclaimed soccer’s all-time leading international goal scorer before the Flash played defending National Women’s Soccer League champion Portland to a 1-1 tie. “The injury looked a lot worse than it was.”
The head-to-head collision Wambach experienced while playing for the U.S. national team in an April 10 exhibition against China left her with a shiner that made her look as if she had just gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. The picture she tweeted to nearly 300,000 Twitter followers showed a grotesquely swollen, black-and-blue left eye.
“It was just one of those things, an occupational hazard,” Wambach said, shrugging it off. “I wound up heading the back of a Chinese player’s head instead of the ball. Those things can happen when you are in the heat of battle, trying to score a goal. You can’t worry about it. You have to be fearless. At this stage of my career, I’m not about to change.”
That intrepid spirit manifested itself at an early age. When you are the youngest of seven children, as Abby was growing up in Pittsford, you learn how to compete in order to survive. Wambach, who would go on to earn All-America honors at Our Lady of Mercy High School and the University of Florida, has always had a good head on her shoulders, and she has used it, mentally and physically, to become the face of women’s soccer. More than a third of her 167 international goals have come on headers. It’s clearly one of the reasons the 5-foot-11 Wambach has been able to rise above the competition.
It would take several pages to list all her achievements. Besides breaking the career scoring record of her idol, Mia Hamm, Wambach has won two Olympic gold medals and been named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and world player of the year by FIFA. She’s also earned an ESPY Award for the top sports play of the year. There would appear to be no worlds left to conquer as a player, but the woman who turns 34 on June 2 says there remains some unfinished business. The Women’s World Cup, which will be staged next year in Canada, has significance because that title is the only thing missing from Wambach’s scintillating resume. And there’s also the matter of making sure women’s professional soccer succeeds here in Rochester and throughout the United States, after the failure of previous leagues.
Wambach has come oh-so-close to winning the Women’s World Cup. After earning bronze in 2003 and 2007, the U.S. seemed on the verge of bringing home the gold in 2011, especially after Wambach’s spectacular quarterfinal match goal in a shootout victory against Brazil. (Yes, that came on a header, too.) The Americans followed that win with a 3-1 victory against France and were heavy favorites against Japan in the championship game, but they lost 3-1 on penalty kicks. With four goals and an assist, Wambach had carried the team on her back.
“Even though we didn’t win it all, that team really seemed to strike a chord with the American people,” she said. “I think they admired the way we battled back and fought right to the very end. But our goal is to complete the job this time around. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a true team effort, because the competition is getting tougher in women’s soccer. The world has closed the gap.”
Ensuring that women’s professional soccer flourishes here is of special importance to Wambach, given the support she has received from her hometown since her high school days. The disappointing turnout of 3,674 for Saturday’s home opener is an indication that there is much work to be done.
“It’s been really special for me to play professionally in my hometown,” said Wambach, who is in her second season with the Flash. “I’ve pretty much been gone for 15 years, and being back in Western New York for the summer has given me a chance to reconnect with my family and friends. You sacrifice a lot when you hit the road to pursue your career. I’ve missed a lot of family holidays and birthdays. So this has been good.
“It’s also given me an opportunity to give something back to a place that’s always been loyal to me. There’s a certain level of responsibility that comes with this. I think it’s my duty to come to Rochester and make sure this team will be successful. We’re working on the long-term viability of this franchise.”
In a strange and somewhat cruel twist, by coming home Wambach has had to sacrifice by being away from her new home—Portland, Ore.—and her new wife, Sarah Huffman. The two were married last year in Hawaii and were Flash teammates until Huffman was traded recently to Portland.
“It’s hard, because we just built a new house and we just got married and now we are apart,” Wambach said. “But this is my profession, and this is my responsibility right now, to Rochester and this league. It’s only for half of the year, so you work around it.”
Although her focus is on the present, Wambach realizes she is entering the twilight of her career. And what will she pursue after that? Maybe a career in broadcasting, coaching or business.
“I haven’t really settled on anything because I’m trying to devote my energies to the present,” she said. “I do think the transition into the next phase of my life is going to be exciting. The sky’s the limit.”
It’s a future Wambach hopes is filled not only with a new and fulfilling career but also with a family. “That’s definitely something we hope to be blessed with,” she said.
But all that will have to wait at least a few years. There are a soccer franchise and a league that need her right now. And there’s a World Cup, possibly another Olympics, to be played—and won.
“I’m healthier than I’ve been in a while,” Wambach said. “I still love going out there on the pitch. When that becomes a burden rather than a joy, I know it will be time to hang it up.”
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak was in Athens, Greece, during the summer of 2004 to chronicle Abby Wambach’s Olympic gold-medal-winning exploits.
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