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By the time the U.S. beat Brazil on penalty kicks _ Wambach and her teammates made all of theirs _ folks who couldn’t tell a bicycle kick from a Schwinn were piling on the bandwagon. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Lil Wayne and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers were quick to show the Americans some love, and the women even got face time on the Jumbotron at Yankee Stadium.

“People kind of forgot about their woes and were able to celebrate,” Wambach said.

She did her part to keep it going, heading in a corner kick for the go-ahead goal in the 79th minute of the semifinal against France. Wambach also scored in the final, giving the U.S. a 2-1 lead in the 104th minute of overtime. But Homare Sawa tied the game in the 117th, and the Americans lost 3-1 on penalty kicks.

Despite the loss, the Americans were welcomed home like champions. They had inspired the country when it needed it, and that meant as much as any trophy or title.

Almost six months later, the accolades are still coming. Wambach was named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation, and the victory over Brazil was named the top sports accomplishment of the year in a Marist poll. The Women’s World Cup ranked 10th in the voting for AP sports story of the year.

“I’m not a person who cares much about (individual) awards, but I really appreciate you guys recognizing this team,” Wambach said. “It helps keep this sport alive, and it’s really important.”

Wambach takes her role as ambassador for the game seriously, recognizing that time in the spotlight is still rare for women’s soccer and it must be taken advantage of. She is as accommodating a star athlete as there is, happy to sign autographs, pose for pictures or do interviews. This is how the game is grown, and that, not the goals or the scoring records, is what she hopes her legacy will be.

“Hopefully when I’m long gone, this team is so good that people don’t even talk about (me),” she said. “Truthfully.”

Not that Wambach is going anywhere.

The Americans are the defending Olympic champions, and Wambach and her teammates are currently training for next month’s regional qualifying tournament. She hopes to be healthy enough to play at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, and fill that last gap in a resume as dazzling as anyone who’s ever worn the U.S. uniform.

“I have to say, of all people, I think she is one of the best role models: interacting with fans, saying good things about the game, saying good things about this country, saying good things about her teammates,” Sundhage said. “I’m very proud of the fact I’ve had the chance to coach her for so many years. It will be a highlight of my career.”

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Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour