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Abby Wambach: one of a kind

Posted by Julian Cardillo  June 21, 2013 03:27 PM

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USWNT vs South Korea-17.jpg

Abby Wambach broke Mia Hamm's international scoring record on Wednesday night against Korea Republic (Italo Alexander Photography)

Dilboy Stadium: a turf field in Somerville, Mass which seats about 2,500 spectators would seem like the last place you would ever expect to find Abby Wambach, this generation's greatest goal scorer. But alas, on a clear evening in June, that's exactly where she is, playing alongside her Western New York Flash teammates against the Boston Breakers.

It's a cozy environment for the sell-out crowd which roars into excitement under the Boston area's night sky when Wambach scores to put her team up, 2-1, rising high over an opposing defender to finish with one of her trademark headers.

"I actually was saying that it feels kind of like Friday night lights," says Wambach, 33, after the game.

For a player such as Wambach, who broke sports legend Mia Hamm's international goal record in a 5-0 victory over Korea Republic on Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ by scoring her 157th, 58th, 59th, and 60th career international goals, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that playing somewhere such as Dilboy Stadium is beneath her.

Wambach, a veteran of three World Cups and three Olympic Games, has played in some of the biggest and most beautiful soccer stadiums in the world. Dilboy Stadium isn't exactly world class, for in addition to its unforgiving turf on which coexist both American football and soccer lines, the nets are situated right in front of football goal posts. Whenever a player's shot goes over the net's crossbar and passes in between the uprights, at least one fan in attendance shouts "it's good!" and lifts their arms upward to mimic an NFL referee.

And yet, there's Wambach, hunting for goals and playing with that same intensity that's made her one of the world's most feared strikers of the ball.

"Once you step across the lines, the game is still the game," acknowledges Wambach of the scenes at Dilboy. "There are tons of fans here. Maybe not as much as in the big stadiums, but at the end of the day these fans are learning important things. Not only about the game, but about the people. That one-on-one connection is so important."

During the summer months, Dilboy Stadium gets filled to capacity for the Breakers, who participate in the National Women's Soccer League. Many of Wambach's US teammates play for the Boston outfit, including Sydney LeRoux and Heather O'Reilly, both of whom won the gold medal with Wambach at last summer's Olympic Games in London.

But some US national team players are perhaps more marketable than others. American soccer's two most famous female players are without a doubt Alex Morgan, widely regarded as the heiress to Hamm's and Wambach's scoring legacies, and Wambach herself.

During the pre-game ceremony at which the starting lineups for both teams were announced, the Boston crowd went wild when the name "Abby Wambach" came from the PA system.

How many home crowds ever cheer for an opposing player? It's a kind of treatment that stems from respect and supersedes rivalries.

It's because people know Abby Wambach. She's a goal scoring machine. Her current record means two things: one, that she has more international tallies than any player--male or female--in the history of soccer; two, that on a given day, there is roughly a 77% chance that she will score a goal.

That begs the question: is Wambach the best player in the world? To answer might be a sin, since every position on the field is responsible for different tasks. As a striker, Wambach's task is, simply, to score goals. And since she does that well, it gives her more of the spot light. She's very good at her job-- scoring goals that is-- so it's safe to say that she is, without a doubt, one of the best goal scorers on the planet.

That in itself is quite the achievement. She's also just one of twelve female players who have scored more than 100 goals. What's more, Wambach's name gets thrown around with the likes of some of the best soccer players that have ever lived--both men and women. That elite group of players, which no doubt includes Hamm, Lionel Messi, Pele, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michelle Akers, Zico, Marta, and many others, has given us a barometer to measure Wambach's contributions to the world of soccer.

Take Hamm, who was 32 when she retired. She scored 158 international goals. A curious piece of information: while Wambach's international playing career began at 23, Hamm's began at 15. That means that Wambach the same amount of goals as Hamm much, much faster..

Now, let's compare Lionel Messi, the Barcelona forward who is widely regarded as the best male player in the world today. Messi has scored 35 goals in 82 appearances with the Argentina national team. Though there is much more parity in men's international soccer than there is women's, it took Wambach just 47 games to get to where Messi is today. Like Messi, Wambach is also the reigning World Player of the Year in her gender.

It would be easy, maybe even understandable, for Wambach to be an elitist.

But she's not.

“She has a positive tone," says Crystal Dunn, one of Wambach's US teammates. "Just her being an amazing player she can easily be cocky or conceited but she’s not like that at all."

"If I make a mistake in training, she’s right there to pick me up and make me feel good about myself being in this camp," continues Dunn." It’s very stressful obviously playing with the best players in the world and if you make a mistake on the field, she’s always the first one picking me up, making me feel better. I look up to her.”

Of course, being the second-oldest member of the current US player pool has it's own struggles. While Wambach certainly has more goals left to score and more trophies to help the US win, she admits that she has to continue to perfect her skills in order to continue playing at the highest levels. She also has more competition from younger forwards such as LeRoux and Morgan, who are both stepping into the goal scorer's role wonderfully for the US team and look like more than suitable replacements for Wambach once she retires.

But until then, Wambach continues to sharpen her skills, even if it takes more will power now that she's a veteran. She insists that she has a lot more to learn and that practicing every day will make her even more dangerous.

"It's not easy to get yourself motivated to come and do a drill that you've been doing for fifteen years," explains Wambach. "But the truth is I still want to get better. That's why learning how to be the best player you can be, when you're older, you have to be smart."

As one of the most experienced athletes in all of sports, Wambach knows how to condition her body and continue her training. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been a learning curve. Unlike with the men's national team, the women's national team's players don't always have clubs to train with. Wambach and her teammates have seen three professional women's leagues come into existence, the current NWSL being the most recent.

At times, Wambach, who has never played in an international league unlike some national team players, has had to schedule her own training due to the absence of a professional women's league. The advent of NWSL has allowed Wambach to have structured training times, though it's also given her a busier schedule. Her game against the Breakers in June was her third in a week. And even though she's a strong athlete, Wambach says now that she's an older player she has to more aware of fatigue.

"Sometimes we're in three week long training camps, which are grueling," explains Wambach. "Then you take a week off and you have to train on you're own. There's pluses and minuses. Obviously a long season takes it's toll on you, if you're not good about getting the recovery in. You just have to know your body and know what your limits are. It's about being smart, and I'm an older player, so I think I've got that down pat."

On Wednesday, Wambach had a hat-trick inside the first half hour of the game. Each goal had the signature of a pure finisher, hungry for goals and desperate to find the back of the net. Wambach added a fourth goal just before half time, a score which put the icing on the cake well before the game was over. That kind of form diminishes any worries about Wambach's age or how she deals with fatigue.

Tthe goal that mattered most was her third, the 159th of her career, as it pushed her beyond Hamm's threshold and into a new era of scoring. She tallied the record-breaker off one of her kodak-moment headers, towering high above South Korea's defenders to connect with a corner kick sent in by Megan Rapinoe. Wambach and Rapinoe immediately hugged in celebration of the milestone, the duo quickly joined by the rest of the US' field players plus the entire bench.

“All of a sudden she started running and we started running; all of the emotions were just there," added Dunn. "It’s just awesome being on the field with her. I look up to her as a player and just as a person, too. I think she’s amazing in every aspect.”

Said Rapinoe: "“Wow. I can’t even believe it. I didn’t think that she was going to have a hat trick tonight, to be honest and to do it sort of close to her home with all of her family here and everything, unbelievable. Four goals in the first half is ridiculous.”

“Scoring with her head, with her feet, it doesn’t matter what it is," explained Morgan. "We definitely thought that this could be the game or it could be in five games, who knows, but we were ready for it and once she got that first goal we knew it was her game. We knew this was going to be the one.”

“It was a fairy tale night," added US head coach Tom Sermanni. "She couldn’t have done it any better, just fantastic. You know she’s a great professional, she’s in great shape and you know, she was really determined tonight to go out there and break that record and she did it in great style.”

Wambach will certainly not overshadow Hamm despite beating her record, just as Morgan, who has already scored 44 international goals, won't overshadow Wambach if she ever passes the mark. Any player that can contribute that much to their national team is truly one of a kind. Wambach is and has been part of that circle.

Except now, she owns a record.

“It’s special, not only because I could tell my teammates were trying to get me those goals in the first half, but my family was here, it was a great crowd, and a great team performance," finished Wambach.

"I can’t say how much I look up to Mia [Hamm] and how amazing the record that she set was. My teammates have put me in all different kinds of positions to score goals, and I can’t say it enough, and I really through and through believe it in my heart that I’m only as good as my teammates allow me to be. And yes, I score a lot of goals, and yes, I put myself in position to score goals, but they do, too. I can’t thank my teammates enough."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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