The U.S. women's national soccer team is in a transition period as it drives for a second straight World Cup title. The squad is a blend of veteran players making their last World Cup appearance, and new stars who are playing in their first World Cup.
Despite the media focus on Mia Hamm, the real supremacy of the Americans is seen up front with 23-year-old Abby Wambach and veteran Cindy Parlow. The tall 1.79 meter Wambach especially posed problems in the air that even the powerful Norwegians could not answer in a 1-0 U.S. quarterfinal victory.
Wambach says her physical play started when she began to overwhelm the competition as an 8-year-old. "I was in the whole soccer realm for a while with the girls. I would be scoring 27 goals in three games. So my parents moved me into the boys league, and I played with them for five or six years. Honestly, that is pretty much where I learned to be physical and learned to survive in that type of atmosphere," she says.
Wambach continued to play at the University of Florida and joined the U.S. national team in 2001 and the WUSA professional league in 2002. But while she had success in the league, Wambach says U.S. coach April Heinrichs was not sure she fit into the national team. "The concern of April's was that I was making a difference in the WUSA but not in an international scheme. The game is different. It is a faster game. It is a smarter game. It is more physical off the ball," she says.
Wambach continued to learn with the Washington Freedom as a forward running alongside Mia Hamm, considered the best women's soccer player in the world. Wambach tied for the lead in league scoring this past season with 13 goals and seven assists. The pair also helped Washington to win the WUSA championship. "To be able to say you have been able to play and conquer the WUSA with Mia Hamm at your side, all you are going to do from that is learn. And all I did from that was become a better player," she says.
And Wambach says that experience helped to define her style that fit with the U.S. national team. "It is something that has taken a long time to do, find my place on this team. And then also find my niche and where I belong in the international scheme of things. And obviously it is the physical side and it that is just what I need to keep going with," she says.
Wambach's niche has been her looming presence up front and her jolting collisions with opposing players in the World Cup. "If you are going to play in the international game and if you are going to play in the WUSA, you have got to have something that sets you apart from other people. And my physical height, weight, size, strength, just as I keep using those to my advantage, then I think I will still be successful throughout this World Cup and hopefully beyond," she says.
Wambach's size and power have complemented the speed and agility of the smaller players on the U.S. team. Considering her scoring abilities, Wambach will likely be a leading member of the U.S. women's soccer team for years to come.