- - Monday, September 2, 2013

Back where it all began, Abby Wambach recalled her roots with the Washington Freedom. Spoke of the soccer history ingrained in RFK Stadium. Evoked lessons learned there about professionalism and work ethic.

But before the U.S. women’s national team trained Monday, it only took Wambach one venture through RFK’s dark, dusty and seemingly never-ending tunnels for her to remember the venue’s less glamorous side.

Widening her eyes, Wambach let out a laugh and declared: “I definitely did that walk one too many times.”

It was an inglorious aspect of what’s turned into a glorious career. Since playing at RFK Stadium with the now-defunct Freedom from 2002 to 2003, Wambach has become the most prolific scorer in international soccer history, reaching 160 goals in June to surpass Mia Hamm.

As Wambach grows older and younger players are integrated into the U.S. squad, she realizes the goals are only one part of her evolving role. With the United States set to face Mexico in a friendly Tuesday at RFK, the 33-year-old is more influential than ever.

“I’ve played with Abby for a while now, and I’ve just seen an immense change in her leadership,” said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd, Wambach’s teammate with the NWSL’s Western New York Flash. “She’s really coming into her own and really being the leader that she needs to be. We look up to her. We look to her for support.”

Eleven years ago in the nation’s capital, Wambach was the one in search of mentorship.

After a standout career at the University of Florida, the 5-foot-11 forward came to Washington with the physical gifts but she was still rough around the edges.

Looking back, Wambach is quick to cite then-Freedom coach Jim Gabarra and Hamm, her teammate with Washington and the U.S. team, for creating a competitive atmosphere that set her on the right path.

“These were the building blocks for the kind of career I’ve created for myself,” Wambach said. “At the end of the day, when you leave college it really is up to you. Everybody is good enough — it’s just a matter of putting all of the tools together and having the mentality to be able to withstand whatever is thrown your way.”

Wambach later played for the reincarnated Freedom at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds from 2009 to 2010.

But lately she’s been plying her trade for her hometown Flash, who she led to an appearance in the inaugural NWSL title game this past Saturday.

Although she has made her name as a dominating finisher, Wambach added some class to her all-around game while ending up second in the league in assists (8) as well as goals (11).

As Wambach noted, “Adaptation is important as you get older.”

Abby is obviously one of a kind,” U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. “You see her in the NWSL and she’s setting people up, she’s not just scoring with her head. I feel like you can put Abby in a box a lot of the time, but she’ll always surprise you with something else.”

With the next World Cup nearly two years away, there’s little urgency surrounding Tuesday’s friendly. Yet even after 207 international appearances, Wambach doesn’t take wearing her country’s colors for granted.

She’s spent the past decade raising the bar for her sport, after all, and sees no point in slowing down now.

“I’m more excited than anybody,” Wambach said. “It’s always really fun to put the jersey on, get the gear, to be in the environment where the standard is higher. Those are the kind of environments that I thrive in.”

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