- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It’s the kind of drill in which the possibility of two skulls crashing together is very real. The free kick sailed in from near the midfield stripe, and at the top of the penalty box, two U.S. women’s soccer players went up for the ball.

One got up.

The other didn’t.

A trainer began jogging toward the injured player until she realized who it was - she then slowed to a brisk walk.

“It’s just Abby,” a team official said. “Happens once a day.”

Moments later, Abby Wambach was back on the field.

Such is the respect Team USA has for Wambach’s toughness and style of play. She gets a knock on the head? No big deal.

Her physical mentality in the air and around the goal has led to 99 international goals, including the gold medal-clincher in Athens four years ago. Wambach, 28, again will be a starting forward for the Americans next month in the Beijing Games.

But as she said earlier this summer after a training session at Georgetown University, it was her time with the Washington Freedom of the now defunct Women’s United Soccer Association that was the catalyst for successful national team career.

“It was a good transition from colleges to get to this level,” she said. “I had been with the national team a little and felt the international level was a bit too fast and a bit too high talent for me. It was tough to understand how I would get to this level. Playing here was the perfect midpoint to fill that gap.”

The first pick overall of the Freedom in 2002, Wambach helped Washington to a runner-up finish with 10 goals and 10 assists.

“She was somebody they went through, but they also had Mia [Hamm], so they had two players that teams had to key on,” said U.S. defender Christie Rampano, who played against Wambach in the WUSA.

In 2003, the Freedom won the league championship with Wambach teaming up front with Hamm. Their partnership was short-lived - the WUSA folded in September 2003, days before the United States began play in the World Cup.

“It was devastating to hear that before one of the biggest tournaments of our lives,” Wambach said. “We felt it was a great opportunity for that tournament to bring life back to women’s soccer had we won the World Cup and then the 2004 Olympics.”

Wambach lived in Arlington while playing for the Freedom - “I loved it here; it always gave me a good vibe” - and financial mistakes doomed the WUSA.

“It was a [long shot] probably a little bit in terms of how much they were spending on frivolous things,” she said. “They took residence of our league office in New York City, and was it necessary to spend that kind of money? I don’t know what all the wrongdoings were, but I knew we had a great product, and it was unfortunate it folded. I have a personal love with the WUSA because it gave me an opportunity to be seen by the national team coaches.”

Before joining the Freedom, Wambach played at the University of Florida and had trained with the national team but played in only one match. Since the WUSA folded in September 2003, she has been a mainstay on the U.S. team, appearing in 126 career matches. She’s one goal away from becoming only the ninth player with 100 international goals.

“With the Freedom, I was able to get comfortable with the quicker speed of play, and when I got called to the national team, I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “I was on the bubble of this team for a good two years, and I wasn’t a shoe-in to start in the 2003 World Cup. I was probably one of the last players on the roster. But then I got to start some games.”

Since then, Wambach assumed the role of goal scorer from a group of veterans, including Hamm, who retired following the 2004 games. She scored four goals in Athens to lead the team.

“She got a lot of attention, that’s for sure,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “Everybody who faced her knew about her presence in the air.”

In her first year as coach, Sundhage has changed Wambach’s role. Instead of creating every scoring opportunity by leaving her feet, Wambach has been asked to move more without the ball and shoot from different parts of the penalty box.

“The games last year, there were a lot of 50-50 balls going to her because she is so great in the air,” Sundhage said. “Now we want to pick and choose when we want to move forward and keep possession more, so she’s not as involved with the ball as much. But the defenders still have to know where she is because she has a great shot with her right and left foot.”

Considered a co-favorite along with Brazil for the gold medal, the United States opens pool play against Norway on Aug. 6 in Norway. It won’t get to play in Beijing until the medal round.

The year leading into the games has been one of transition to a new coach and new roles for several players. The team has not lost a match this year.

“The chemistry has just gotten better and better every single day,” Wambach said. “Pia has brought a different style to our team, and it’s brought out the personalities that maybe haven’t been there in the past. It’s been great to see the performance this team has gone through. But it hasn’t been easy.”

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