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Wambach leads by example

HERAKLIO, Greece -- When most of the Fab Five of the U.S. Women's National Team finally hang up their competitive soccer boots for the final time after the Olympics, there certainly will be no shortage of candidates to become team leaders.

Midfielder Kristine Lilly, one of those five, plans to stay on and her experience as the most capped player on this planet certainly will be a boost to her younger teammates.

Then there's 24-year-old Abby Wambach. She certainly looks the part on the field -- an intimidating 5-11 and 161 pounds -- and just as importantly, sounds the part. Moreover, she has put her money where her mouth is, with one of the best strike rates in National Team history (29 goals in only 41 games).

She made it an eye-opening 15 goals in her last 16 international apperances on Wednesday night, scoring the second goal - a nicely placed eight-yard header in the United States' 3-0 win over Greece.

"It's not our best performance by any stretch, but it's the first game of the Olympics and we had to get the kinks out," she said.

Wambach unwittingly has found herself in the middle of a simmering controversy after she was awarded a yellow card for fouling Greek defender Kalliopi Stratakis in the 49th minute.

The U.S. wasn't protesting that, but rather the fact it has to play three first-round games due to the unbalanced group situation. The Americans are in Group G, which has four teams apiece, while Group E and F have three teams each. That means the Group G teams have another game in which to incur yellow cards. Two yellows in the opening round means a player must miss a match.

U.S. coach April Heinrichs rightfully called it a "competitive disadvantage." Before the tournament Heinrichs asked FIFA to rectify the situation, but nothing has been done.

Heinrichs has several options: Play Wambach against Brazil on Saturday and rest her vs. Australia on Tuesday; have Wambach get a yellow vs. the South American side, so she would miss the match vs. the weaker Aussies or roll the dice and have her play through.

Wambach? She just wants to play, no matter what the situation.

Her attitude is the key to her performance and potential leadership roles.

"At this level you have to exude a certain level of confidence in yourself, even if you make many mistakes," she said. "You have to know that somehow you're going to get better. I feel confident that if I get put on the field I'll do everything I can for my team and I will play as hard as I can for my team. Because if I don't, I'm not doing my job. And, if I have to look at my teammates in their eyes and have them see me in that light, I'd quit.

"I would never want to walk off the field knowing that my teammates thought I didn't work hard enough. That is the one thing I can control. I can't control if I score goals. I can't control if I play well or if I have a good touch on the first ball. But I can control how hard I work, and that's a big part of my game. That's confidence."

Sounds like someone who is ready to take the torch from this generation and be a team leader.

"The greatest challenge for us is to keep the standard set as high as the ones that are going to be leave behind," Wambach said. "They have made this team exactly what it is by their work ethic and their love for the game both on and off the field. If we can incorporate some of those things in the next five, 10 and hopefully beyond, years, I think we'll be successful."

When the Rochester, N.Y. native joined the team in 2001, Wambach said she wasn't intimidated by its stars and legends - Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandy Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Lilly.

"I was very respectful of what they had done and what they were going to do," she said. "Their careers are so vast. They've done so many different things. Mia -- she's the face. Lil -- she's the engine. She just doesn't stop. I don't think she's going to retire after these Olympics, which is even more amazing. She's the most capped player in the world. Julie is the heart of the 91ers. Brandi -- she's the sewer. She's the seamstress."

Wambach laughed.

"She just recently got into sewing," she added. "Brandi's the brains. She has pontificated and has the mental aspect of the game. Altogether they have combined into one incredible product we have all seen on the field the past several years."

Wambach realizes that she won't be around the likes of the Fab Five much longer. So, she has taken advantage every time she is around those veterans.

"Oh man, every time they talk on the soccer field, I'm listening," she said. "I just want to absorb as much information from them as I possibly can. If I don't, I'll be cheating myself and the rest of the future of this team. I want to learn from them as much as I can. Specifically, I can't point one thing out more so than the next. I think (it's) the tradition of the whole team and if you have that down, and you get it, and you'll be successful."

Retooling the team won't happen overnight.

"You know, it's going to be something slow," Wambach said. "We'll have the next year to prepare for our next world championship. In order to become the best again, it's going to take time. It's going to take patience and we have to understand that. If there is going to be a torch passing, I don't think it's going to be really like that. I think everybody is going to take up a responsibility for what's left. Everyone is going to have a big part in it. If we don't do this together, there is no way we're going to get back to the top. There's no way we're going to stay there."

While several teammates refuse to look ahead and talk about avenging last year's semifinal defeat to Germany in the Women's World Cup, Wambach has no problem. In fact, she can't wait (In her 41 international appearances, Wambach has tasted defeat only twice -- in that 3-0 WWC semifinal loss to Germany and a 3-1 setback to Sweden at the Algarve Cup on March 18). If everything follows suit, the Americans and Germany will meet here in Heraklion on Aug. 23 in the semifinals and an opportunity to reach the gold-medal match.

"No words or explanation can describe how hungry I am," Wambach said, "and how hungry every person on this team is. We have been working for seven months now together. I think our chances are maybe better than they were in the World Cup. We both have a better sense of what each other has done to get to this point. We've all had similar roads. You have a sense of chemistry and bonding we didn't have in the World Cup. That might be the extra edge, the added something to win the Olympics. To do that, that would be great. The World Cup was a learning experience for us and we figured out what we needed to do better."

In contrast to last year's WWC, when American players had a couple of weeks of training camp due to the Women's United Soccer Association season ending in August, the U.S. had months to prepare for the Olympics, using its traditional residency camp.

"It's going to be the difference for us," Wambach said.

"I don't think we can get any more ready. We're all physically fit. We're all mentally there. Tactically. it's all a matter of being able to put it one product on the field and playing the way we play. At times we've been in that environment where we get nervous or get stressed or whatever and get out of our game plan. If we stick to our game plan we're going to be successful. I believe it because we have been practicing that for the past seven months. This has been leading up to this important time. It's time to shine. It's time to put everything we've been working on and learning to work."

Asked about the team's biggest challenge, Wambach replied, "Ourselves. When we play within ourselves and we do everything that we can in our realm, there's nobody who can beat us, nobody. Soccer is the type of game that on any given day you can have a bad game and if we have a bad game in Greece, there's a potential for the possibility of losing. We just have to stay on top of our game every single day. If we do that, I think we will be successful."

It's not necessarily fair, but because of her height the inevitable comparisons occur between Wamach and soccer legend Michelle Akers, who will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in October.

"It's comparing apples to oranges," Wambach said. "You compare me to Michelle because of our size. But we're completely different players. You compare me to Mia. We're obviously apples and oranges. We do have one thing in common in that we like to score goals. We're all pretty good at it. In terms of comparison, that's probably all I can give you.

"It's more flattering than anything because you're talking about two women who quite possibly could be the most influential in the history of women's soccer. I think they're the only two females who made the the 100 list. I feel honored if people think of me in that light. But you never know what can happen in the next two years of my career. Maybe those comparisons will go away. Maybe I won't mind if they do. They're good people and they're great soccer players."

If she continues her strike rate and the U.S. team's success, another young turk just might be saying the same thing about Wambach a decade or so from now.

Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com