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Aug 27, 2004

Wambach has Midas touch in final

PIRAEUS, Greece -- It was a good two hours after FIFA president Sepp Blatter put an Olympic gold medal around the neck of U.S. forward Abby Wambach and the significance of winning the final hadn't truly sunk in yet.

She was drained - physically and emotionally.

"It's surreal. It's surreal," she said. "I can't describe exactly how I feel right now. It's not completely hit me."

Yet, like on the field, Wambach came through.

Not only can she talk a pretty good game, Wambach can play one as well.

The United States' 2-1 gold-medal win over Brazil on Thursday night was far from her best game of her career, yet the 24-year-old dynamo managed to find a way to become the ultimate impact player for the Americans - by scoring the winning goal in extra time.

That's obviously the mark of a money player for someone who took another step toward becoming a leader on this team after the likes of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett have all moved on.

Wambach again came through in the clutch with her team-best fourth goal of the Olympics. She has scored an incredible 18 times in her last 20 international matches and for an amazing 33rd time in only 45 appearances.

"We scored, won a gold medal. It's unbelievable," Wambach said.

Depending on your perspective, the celebration begins or continues in Rochester, N.Y. -- Wambach's hometown -- on Saturday, Sept. 25 with the start of what U.S. Soccer called the "Fan Celebration Tour." It was appropriate that the 10-city tour kicks off in upstate New York because Wambach was such a force during the Olympics.

Wambach endured a tough game that probably felt more like 240 minutes rather than the 120 minutes that were played. Her chances were few and far between. When she had the ball with her back to the goal, the quick and skilled Brazilian defenders made sure she did not have enough time to turn to place a dangerous shot on net.

They also came in hard, very hard, on tackles.

"They were solid all game long," Wambach said. "The thing about Brazilian defenders, they're all or nothing. They're going in hard. They did a great job today. Unfortunate for them to lose, but I think we all know who deserved to win today and I think we all know by whatever grace it was -- they hit posts, we had a few chances -- it's just how the way the game goes. It's no other outcome that was possible for us. We believe it was something that was meant to be."

Being a striker means you're going to experience failure many more times than you will succeed. You might have three or four really good chances in a game. If you're lucky, one might find its way into the back of the net.

The old adage in soccer is that a striker can play lousy for 89 minutes and then change the course of the game within seconds. Wambach certainly fit into that category on Wednesday. It's not like she didn't try -- her trademark is to never give up -- but her really dangerous opportunities were few and far between.

Until the 112th minute.

Wambach and Monica were battling for the ball and the Brazilian defender kicked it out of bounds over the goal line to set up a U.S. corner kick.

Kristine Lilly sent a ball from the left corner that veered slightly away from the goal box. But then Wambach flew in beating Monica to head the ball past goalkeeper Andreia. Brazil captain Juliana tried to head the ball off the line, but it popped off her head and into the roof of the net.

"Lilly crossed the ball," Wambach said. "I went forward. Monica thought I was going more near post. I think she misread the flight of the ball. I went over her head. I just put it back far post.

"It's up there with one of the best in my life."

Right before Lilly took the kick, Foudy went over to Wambach.

"It's the 110th minute of the game. People are getting tired, people are getting nervous," Wambach said. "Julie looked at me and said, 'This is the one. You've got to make this or it goes to PKs.' "

It didn't. Wambach outjumped Monica.

"Julie said, 'Thank you for making sure I'm not going to be miserable for the next 40 years of my life,'" Wambach said.

Monica was one tough cookie in the air for most of the night at Karaiskaki Stadium just south of Athens.

"She commanded the air game today," Wambach said. "She won so many 50-50 balls. I thought that we could get one chance and capitalize on it ... thought that time would take its course and we would get one chance and capitalize on it."

It certainly wasn't lost on Wambach that the two American goals were scored by two of the youngest members of the team - herself and 20-year-old Lindsay Tarpley, who will return for her senior year at the University of North Carolina this fall. Heather O'Reilly, 19, scored the game-winner in OT in the semifinal win over Germany.

"Heather O'Reilly put us in this game, Tarpley put us in the lead and I finished off this game," Wambach said. "So the young ones in a lot of ways, worked so hard and have been working hard because it's coming. It's inevitable we will have a chance to lead this team. I think we proved it today and during the course of the tournament that will be all right."

For Wambach, it wasn't about her or Tarpley, it was about the Fab Five -- the five players from the first world championship team in 1991 who were playing a competitive match together for one last time -- Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, Foudy and Lilly.

"What better way for us younger kids to help out, to let them go out with a gold medal around their necks," she said. "This is for them. We don't want the spotlight here. Tarpley and I - we want to sit back and watch them smile and party and dance because this is there time. We'll be around for many years to come. In order for them to step away from this game in the best way possible is score goals for them and set them up with a gold medal around their necks and let them shine."

With the Washington Freedom in the old Women's United Soccer Association, Wambach partnered with Hamm on the field and became friends with her off of it.

So, it wasn't surprising that after the final whistle sounded, Wambach and many of her teammates raced to Hamm.

"That's the team," Wambach said. "These women, Mia especially, she has single-handedly been able to put this game on the map, put women's soccer, put women's sports (on the map). She has been the face. She's been so much of my career. I wouldn't be standing here right now if it wasn't for her support, for her help, for her guidance, for her leadership on the Washington Freedom. That's why I ran to her. Mia - she deserves it. She's earned the right when you go into the overtime of a gold medal game, and you win it, you run to her when the whistle blows."

In her last competitive game at the highest level, Hamm did not come close to looking as dangerous on the attack as her world-record 153 international goals might suggest.

"I think Mia played well," Wambach said. "She does things that the U.S. media or journalists don't know about. She's leader on the field by example. You give her the ball and she does great things with it. She's a tactician. She knows exactly what to do. She knows what to do against Brazil when they get the ball. She works her butt off defensively. When you see that type of effort, it's contagious,. it effects every single person on the field. That's what Mia did for us today.

"To be able to score the winning goal in a gold medal game for these women who have given me my life, who have given me my culture, and my job in a lot of respects, thank you for them. This is the best thank you I can give them."

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