Abby Wambach’s mug graces just about every official U.S. Women’s national soccer team publication. That’s her — three times — featured prominently on the cover of the team’s 2011 media guide.
This summer, her popularity reached beyond the focus group of diehard soccer fans as her clutch header goals in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany saved the U.S. in several games and helped the team advance to the Finals. So just like any pop culture product, her noggin has followers on Twitter (in the bio section, the account @WambachsHead describes itself pastime as “scoring goals, saving lives.”)
So Wambach has the responsibility as the face for her national team and the credibility as one of the most popular American female athletes — and yet on Wednesday afternoon, she was the one schlepping the Gatorade container like a hazed rookie and picking up behind teammates after a spirited practice session at the Sporting Club Training Center.
“Who’s shin guards,” Wambach called out. “Anybody missing shin guards?”
Wambach, and the U.S. women’s national team, will play in front of thousands this Saturday at Livestrong Sporting Park for a friendly against Canada. She’ll once again stand up as an ambassador to this game although she appears more Rochester girl than rock star.
“I’m an extrovert, so when I walk into a room, I tend to take the scenery in quickly,” said Wambach, the New York native. “Now since the World Cup, I kind of keep my head down a little bit. I don’t walk to the store to have conversation with 15 people. If I am recognized, I’m more than willing to talk. I feel really proud and happy to have the accomplishments that I’ve have but at the end of the day, people still want to do what they want to do in peace.”
Her life has certainly changed since Germany but the desire has not. After a career that has spanned through four international competitions, Wambach still shows up off the plane energetic for a weekday practice. During the hour-and-a-half session, Wambach was easy to spot — only had to listen for the one providing the background noise, complete with explosion sound effects when a teammate kicked the ball into the net. That’s Wambach.
At 31 years old, her love for this game still flickers inside. She takes in the experience – as mundane as it may seem –as if she was one of those young girls on the other side of the green chain-linked training center fence, staring up with eyes of wonder and extending their pens and sheets of paper. This passion could help explain Wambach’s thirst for a World Cup victory.
Before the final match against Japan, Wambach explained to anyone with a tape recorder that she would sacrifice her 122 goals — third all-time in U.S. Women’s national team history — for a chance to lift the trophy.
“This isn’t good enough for me,” Wambach said over the summer. “Getting to the final is only halfway part of the dream coming true.”
The dream remained unfulfilled as the U.S. lost in the final — deferred until another four years. Much can happen in four years and Wambach, who has recently rested for several weeks with a sore Achilles tendon, can only commit to as much as her body allows her.
“If I’m healthy in 2015 and if I’m chosen for the squad (that) goes up to Canada for the World Cup, I would love to play but it’s too far away for me to make any decisions,” Wambach said. “I focus on the Olympics at this point, getting my body back to 100 percent.”
Teammate Christie Rampone can understand Wambach’s desire. Rampone — the 36-year-old mother of two and the most seasoned player on the roster — made her 1997 debut when most of her current national teammates were just discovering club soccer. Rampone now envisions life after the game, knowing that the 2012 Olympics will be her last in international competition. Although the race against the clock will eventually catch up with her teammate as well, Rampone believes that once Wambach leaves the game — in spite of the results in Germany — she should have no regrets.
“I think Abby is such a competitor, that’s one goal that she wants to get before she ends her career,” Rampone said. “But I think as she gets older and realizes where she is in her career and what she’s done; the goals that she’s scored and helping her team get to finals and having Olympic gold. I think when she puts it all in perspective later on, when she’s done playing; she’ll realize she’s done an amazing thing for the U.S. team and for herself personally.”
“That will be the memory that I will grasp when I see the photos from that (World Cup finals) game. Yeah, we lost but we did something positive for America back home.”
Although Wambach remains publicly noncommittal on the next World Cup in 2015, Rampone knows her teammate and knows that she’ll try her best to be there.
“Oh, I’m positive she’ll be back. I think she definitely has another four years in her,” Rampone said. “She’s definitely capable. She’s got the mentality and she’s got the mindset, it’s just making sure she paces herself through the times of when to push herself and when she needs to take it easy. I foresee being out there cheering her on for the next go-around.”
“I’ll be asking her for tickets,” Rampone joked.
After the enjoyment of just working out on the field again, Wambach freed her drenched hair from its stretchy band and grabbed a drink. She then turned her attention to interviews — at one point, wiping her nose before shaking a reporter’s hands — and satisfying the squealing girls with autographs. It may not be the ultimate prize Wambach had in mind when she envisioned returning to the states but part of the job description now. And a job she doesn’t think she’ll be giving up soon.
“I think that my career is not complete because it’s not over yet,” Wambach said. “I haven’t retired and hopefully I won’t have to make those decisions until further down the road.”