There's not a whole lot Abby Wambach hasn't accomplished. Since she first suited up for the U.S. Women's National Team in 2001, Wambach has scored more goals — 178 — than any other American player, male or female. She's won two Olympic gold medals. She's won an ESPY Award for Best Play. In April, she even went on American Idol to present host Ryan Seacrest with a U.S. jersey and an offer to be the team's waterboy in this summer's Women's World Cup.
There is one thing missing from that list, however. She's never won a World Cup. Oh, she's come close. Wambach was on the U.S. teams that made the semifinals in 2003 and '07. In '11, she put on an incredible display of clutch goal scoring. In the quarterfinals, she headed home a goal in the 122nd minute to send the game to a shootout, which the U.S. won. (It was the latest goal in World Cup history.) In the semifinals, she scored the game-winner against France with just over 11 minutes to play. And in the final game, she scored another extra-time goal, this one against Japan, to give the U.S. a 2--1 lead — and, seemingly, the Cup.
And then it all blew up. Japan equalized with just three minutes to play and won in a penalty shootout. Wambach and her teammates were devastated. "We felt like we were deserving of standing at the top of the podium," says forward Alex Morgan, who scored the first U.S. goal in the championship game. "And we weren't. There was another team there celebrating. It's stuck with me a lot since then. I'll forever remember that moment, and it's heartbreaking."
So, for the U.S., the 2015 Women's World Cup is more than a chance to bring home the most coveted trophy in women's soccer. It's a chance at redemption.
A NEW ROLE
When Wambach played in her first World Cup, in 2003, she was a brash 23-year-old trying to help send a group of legendary veterans — including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain (below, celebrating) and Julie Foudy — out as champions. (Wambach had a habit of yapping so much that her teammates jokingly got her a shirt that read HELP! I'M TALKING AND I CAN'T SHUT UP!) She played well, scoring three goals, but the U.S. was shut out in the semifinals by Germany. "Boy, I thought I let my teammates down," says Wambach.
Now 35, Wambach has grown into the leader. She and captain Christie Rampone — the last holdover from the 1999 World Cup--winning team — are the ones the younger players are tying to send out on top. "Abby is a great leader, and for me personally, she's helped me a lot throughout my career," says Morgan (above, with Wambach). "She was one of my first friends on the team, kind of my big sister in a way. [She] wants me to succeed, and helps me in any way she can. She really is deserving of a World Cup title."
Wambach showed just how dedicated she is to the cause by deciding not to play in the National Women's Soccer League season that started in April. "At my age, putting those extra miles on my legs wasn't going to be the best thing for me to prepare for this World Cup," says Wambach. "My focus is completely and solely on the World Cup." So instead of playing, she has been training at Nike headquarters near her home in Portland, Oregon. Wamback has also been practicing with the Seattle Reign, the NWSL team that holds her rights.
Wambach's role on the team is different now. Morgan has taken over as the top goal-scoring threat, and Wambach has been coming off the bench of late. But she remains one of the most threatening players in the world. At 5'11", she's a menace in the air. All four of the goals she scored in the 2011 World Cup were with her head. But she's more than just a big target. She's well-rounded, as evidenced by her six goals in the '07 Cup, which included one with her left foot, one with her right foot, one with her head, and one on a penalty kick.
If the U.S. is going to win the Cup, Wambach will likely play a large role. "[Winning] would mean so much, because it's been the thing I've been searching for my whole life," she says. "This is my last chance, and it's really special to be able to do it with this group of players."
For more on the Team USA, check out a slideshow to meet the women competing in Canada!
Photos: Steve Governo/EPA/Landov (Wambach in air), Friedmann Vogel/Getty Images (Wambach and Morgan), Robert Beck for Sports Illustrated (Chastain), Derek Cole/Getty Images (clock)