Wambach helps lead way for U.S. women

Updated: August 10, 2004, 5:26 PM ET
Associated Press

IRAKLION, Greece -- After another botched pass from the left wing, Abby Wambach stopped, clinched her fists and yelled to the heavens: "I can't cross!''

Let the Games begin
IRAKLION, Greece -- At the end of a workout under a searing sun at an old Greek stadium, captain Julie Foudy gathered the U.S. women's soccer team in a midfield huddle.

"Let's get this party started!'' Foudy bellowed in a singsong voice.

The party that is the 2004 Olympic Games is indeed about to begin, with soccer kick-starting the festivities two days ahead of everything else.

The United States opens against Greece on Wednesday (11 a.m. ET) on the island of Crete, one of eight games two days before the opening ceremony for a sport that has to start early to squeeze everything in. In another match, Germany, the 2003 Women's World Cup champion, plays perennial power China.

"We've been ready for a month,'' goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "We're very excited to see what we've got.''

Four men's games also will be played Wednesday. Greece, the Euro 2004 champion, as well as Argentina and Mexico are among the eight men's soccer teams in action (four games, 1:30 p.m. ET kickoffs). Four more men's games will be played Thursday.
-- The Associated Press
A few minutes later, she was at the other end of the crossing pass drill, receiving the ball from Mia Hamm and volleying it into the net with devastating power.

"Those two are lethal up there,'' said goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who was helpless to stop most of Wambach's shots. "They're, if not the best tandem in the tournament, one of the best. It's a synchronicity they have.''

The drill was the highlight of Monday's practice for the U.S. women's soccer team, offering a snapshot of the player who is the most formidable scoring threat in the Olympic tournament. Wambach has netted 14 goals in her last 15 games -- an unbelievable stretch by any measure in international soccer -- and she will again be the linchpin of the attack when the Americans face host Greece in their opening game Wednesday.

"I don't think I could have written this story any better,'' said Wambach, who 18 months ago didn't appear to be in coach April Heinrich's plans. "I've been fortunate to be given the opportunity by April to prove myself.''

In basketball terms, Wambach is the ultimate low-post presence. She's the tallest player on the team at 5 feet, 11 inches, with a muscular build that makes her hard to stop when someone gets her the ball in scoring position.

Until last year, her main obstacle to success with the national team was herself. Wambach would score with abandon with the Washington Freedom of the now-defunct WUSA, but she would tighten up and lose her confidence when invited to practice with legends such as Hamm at the U.S. camps.

"I was infuriated with myself for not being able to perform because I was doing it with the Freedom,'' Wambach said. "I started thinking, 'I've got to start playing without any care of what anyone thinks of me, what April thinks of me.' Once I lost the worries of trying to please a coach, I started playing my own game, and that's when things really started to turn around for me.''

Wambach rallied to make last year's World Cup team and scored a team-high three goals in the tournament. She hasn't looked back, and Monday's practice showed why she has a chance to succeed Hamm as the biggest name in the women's game.

Although the crossing abilities aren't her specialty -- and understandably wouldn't be for a player with style of play -- Wambach was the first player back on the field after a water break. She kicked one cross after another, even though there was no one in front of the net to receive the passes.

"That's the point,'' she said. "Anybody in their right mind, whatever they're doing, if they only do the things that they're good at, I don't think they'll ever get anywhere. So even though it's not my specialty, it could happen in a game where I get a cross, and I've got to put it on a dime or put it on somebody's head or somebody's foot to score the winning goal of the gold medal game. There might be that chance. And knowing that, I've got to practice everything.

"That's just my personality. I believe if I continue to have that attitude, I can go in so many places. Places that I can't even think about.''

Well, the record books, for one. Wambach already is No. 12 on the all-time U.S. scoring list with 28 goals, even though she's made just 40 appearances. She's a long way from Hamm's world-record 151 goals, but that mark might one day be in serious jeopardy if Wambach keeps scoring in 70 percent of her games.

Wambach has the personality that could make her the team captain by the time the next Olympics come around, after Hamm and the other longtime veterans from the original 1991 World Cup team have retired. For now, though, Wambach is concentrating on these games and those veterans, determined to give them a successful send-off.

"These are the last games that a lot of us are going to have a chance to play with these '91ers, and I don't forget that,'' she said. "I'm going to be absorbing and taking in as much as I can to remember it for the rest of my life.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press