- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - For the third-leading scorer in U.S. women’s soccer history, the most memorable goal of her career might be one she allowed on defense.

It was early in the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup, Abby Wambach’s first. Germany had a corner kick, and Wambach’s mark was Kerstin Garefrekes.

Garefrekes got her head on the ball, accidentally redirecting it off the crossbar and into the net, giving the Germans a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“I remember that vividly,” Wambach said, eight years later. “It’s one of the most significant plays of my life because I remember feeling I never, ever want to let that happen again.”

It was that tournament where the forward emerged as the next American star, leading the team with three goals. That part of her experience doesn’t seem to matter to Wambach, even now.

“The thing I take away most is the feeling of unsatisfaction, of not winning, not letting the older players on our team go off on a high note,” she said.

“I remember feeling like a fire was lit in those moments.”

As fiery as ever, Wambach has a chance to pass Kristine Lilly for second place in her country’s record books, behind only Mia Hamm _ she’s scored 117 career goals, 13 away from Lilly. She’s a four-time U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year.

But after missing the 2008 Olympics with a broken leg, the only major championship she has won was a gold medal at the 2004 Games.

“You can score all the goals you want, you can win all the awards you want, and they might look pretty on your bookshelf when you retire. But the prettiest medals are the ones for the championships that you’ve won,” Wambach said. “I guarantee you (Brazil star) Marta probably would trade in every player of the year award she had for a world championship, and I’m the same way.”

Now 31, Wambach leads the United States into this summer’s World Cup _ in Germany. She’s joined by fellow veteran Christie Rampone, who is now the lone remaining holdover from the 1999 championship squad, the United States’ last to win the title. The Americans play their first game June 28 against North Korea.

“If you’re a soccer player, and you’re invested, and you have the resources that this team has, the players this team has _ we want to win, and at the end of the day that is the most important thing,” Wambach said. “Yeah, it’s great to be the face of this team. It’s a responsibility; it’s something Christie and I and many others on our team take and we deal with. But … it’s all about winning, and those world championships are the most important ones.”

After recovering from the broken leg, Wambach struggled with an Achilles’ tendon problem. She doesn’t bounce back from hard practices like she used to, but proclaims she feels less pain than she has in years.

“How can you tell? I’m more combative,” she said, laughing. “The other players on the field are telling me, ‘You’re playing like the old, fearless Abby.’”

She and goalie Hope Solo have clashed off the field over the years. But with experience comes maturity.

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