Sports

U.S. team rides along on Wambach’s terrific play

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany – Is there no stopping the woman?

For the third game in a row, for the third time in eight days, Abby Wambach climbed into the German evening sky, a towering presence among lesser soccer mortals, and thumped in a goal.

The Women’s World Cup would not be the same without the American star, and nor would the United States be in the final Sunday against Japan without her.

Wambach scored her first goal late in a 2-1 first-round loss to Sweden on July 6. That one came off her shoulder, almost accidental and more or less for practice.

Her second came against Brazil, in the 122nd and nearly final minute of an electric quarterfinal Sunday. That one tied the score at 2, and the Americans went on to advance on penalty kicks.

The third arrived Wednesday and France was on the receiving end. With the score tied at 1, Wambach rose at the back post to power Lauren Cheney’s corner kick into the French net, providing the key goal in an eventual 3-1 U.S. victory.

It sent American fans in the Moenchengladbach crowd of 26,676 into a flag-waving frenzy.

The goal not only put the U.S. into Sunday’s final in Frankfurt but was also the 31-year-old Wambach’s 12th goal in World Cup play, tying the U.S. record set between 1991 and 1999 by soccer icon and two-time world champion Michelle Akers.

In other words, it ranks right up there with another of Wambach’s goals, the one she scored in extra time seven years ago, against Brazil in the final of the women’s tournament at the 2004 Athens Olympics. That one earned the U.S. a gold medal.

Small wonder U.S. coach Pia Sundhage could compress her admiration into six words after Wednesday’s triumph.

“Abby, she is just the best,” Sundhage said.

As for Wambach, she showed a rookie’s excitement and a veteran’s poise.

Her reaction after scoring was pure teenager. Her postgame comments were pure professional.

“First of all, I’d like to thank the French team,” she said. “They’re a fantastic side with an amazing attack. It was a great game and a privilege to play against them today.”

Then she talked about the U.S. performance.

“We stuck together out there,” she said. “We stayed strong and we kept going when things got tough.”

Then she talked about her goal.

“In the dressing room, I said to Cheney, ‘When we have a corner, send the ball to the far post and we’ll score.’

“Her delivery was exceptional. I was so close to the post I thought I was going to bang my head against it, but luckily I made contact with the ball.”

The U.S. took the lead on Cheney’s ninth-minute goal, only to have France’s Sonia Bompastor tie it 10 minutes into the second half.

Wambach’s goal came in the 79th minute and, after Alex Morgan had added another three minutes later with a flick over goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz, a 12-year wait ended for the U.S., which has reached the Cup final for the first time since Akers and Co. won it all in 1999 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

But it wasn’t easy.

Statistically, France “won” the game. It outshot the U.S. 25-11. It had twice as many corner kicks (10-5). It had the majority of possession, 55 percent to 45 percent.

But where it mattered most – in putting the ball in the net – the French faltered.

It wasn’t exceptional defending or spectacular goalkeeping that kept France at bay, it was the lack of a player or two who could make a difference.

France has such players; they simply had an off day.

“I’m proud of my players,” France coach Bruno Bini said.

“We came close to winning. The team was nearly there, but the goal didn’t come and you just have to accept it.”

The victory guarantees that the U.S. will keep intact its record of never having finished out of the top three in a world championship. It won in 1991 and 1999 and finished third in 1995, 2003 and 2007.

This time around, second is the worst it could do, but no one in the American camp was thinking along those lines Wednesday.

Amid the celebrations, the thought that might have crossed a few minds was: Can Abby Wambach do it again?

Chances are, she can.



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