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Jul 17, 2008

Wambach's loss leaves U.S. team reeling

When Abby Wambach dove in for a 50-50 ball versus Brazil, she was doing what she had done for years on the national team level. She was playing full-tilt soccer. Her all-or-nothing style is her trademark. It didn't matter that she was in an exhibition match -- a meaningless friendly that the U.S. women would win 1-0 versus a squad they had defeated a few days earlier.

Wambach's fearless approach had left her bruised and battered before and once covered with blood from a head wound in the last World Cup. Still, she had always soldiered on, at one point imploring the doctors applying stitches to hurry because her team needed her.

This time, Wambach didn't get up from the collision with defender Andreia Rosa, lifting a hand to appeal for medical assistance instead. Wambach was taken to the hospital, where it was confirmed that both bones of her lower left leg, the tibia and fibula, were fractured.

One might consider the U.S. team's Olympic hopes to be in a similar state. Injuries have already robbed the squad of experienced players such as defender Cat Whitehill and midfielder Leslie Osborne. Many members of the squad coach Pia Sundhage now takes to the Olympics will be young and untested. The player replacing Wambach on the roster, forward Lauren Cheney, is only 20 years old.

Wambach had immediate surgery, with doctors inserting a titanium rod to stabilize her leg. Two months of recovery are required. Yet she herself attempted to minimize the impact of her absence from the Olympics.

"Above everything else, I'm only one player, and you can never win a championship with just one player," Wambach said in a statement.

That assertion didn't seem to apply to the national team only a year ago, when, leading a direct attack game, Wambach scored 20 of the team's 62 goals. Under then-coach Greg Ryan, the powerful forward was so crucial to the squad that when she was injured in a World Cup game versus North Korea, he did not substitute her. Wambach returned to the field after getting stitched up, though her short-handed teammates had conceded two goals in the interim.

If Ryan overvalued Wambach somewhat, it's possible that Sundhage has gone to the other extreme. At 5-foot-11, Wambach has unique size and strength to battle for balls in the air and to hold off defenders. Hindsight is always cautionary in nature, but with the Olympics so close, it might have been prudent to limit Wambach's playing time, especially since she had just faced Brazil.

However, Sundhage's approach in de-emphasizing the role of Wambach might be what could ultimately save the team now. The new possession-based emphasis has created more opportunities for other players. Though Wambach still leads the squad with 13 goals this year, the scoring disparity isn't so vast. Lindsey Tarpley has 10 goals, while Natasha Kai has 12, including the winning header versus Brazil that she scored after Wambach's injury. Simply put, the team is not as lost without Wambach as it would have been before Sundhage came in and varied the team's attack.

"I'm confident in my strengths, and [Sundhage]'s brought that out in me," said Tarpley of the coach's changes, which have included placing Tarpley on the field as an attacking midfielder. "That's when I'm playing my best, when I can read the game and read where I need to be beforehand."

Other players have the potential to make an impact, but might find the burden of expectations to be crushing. The talent is there, but without Wambach to rely on, their poise will be tested.

"I'm still very new at this," said forward Amy Rodriguez, who has four goals this year. "I'm still learning the system, especially Pia's coaching."

Tarpley, one of the remaining players who has already won a gold medal, will need to fulfill more of a leadership role in Wambach's absence.

"I'm not one of the oldest yet, but I have a lot of experience," Tarpley said. "It's been fun to have younger players come in, because I've been in their situation."

Indeed, Tarpley was 20 in the Athens Olympics, yet she scored a crucial goal against Brazil in the gold-medal game. The winner, however, was notched by Wambach, one of Tarpley's close friends.

It may be that while Wambach can be replaced on the field, what she means as a talismanic fighter to the team cannot be substituted for or measured.

"I was very emotional," said Tarpley of seeing Wambach injured.

Kai was even more direct in her comments to The Associated Press.

"We need her," Kai said. "She's a big piece of a great team."

When Sundhage took over the team, she acknowledged the U.S. team was superior in many ways to other national squads, but she zeroed in on one area for improvement. While Sundhage revamped the way the U.S. tried to score goals, she always maintained that Wambach was still a powerful weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Sundhage just didn't want Wambach to be the only one.

"What we have to work on is going into the attacking third," said Sundhage. "I think we're still too eager to find the final pass, so we are dispossessed too easily."

Most of those final passes had one target in the past -- Wambach. She was good enough to notch goals even when rivals knew exactly where the ball would go.

With Sundhage imposing a more creative approach, the U.S. has found success and is unbeaten this year. Yet losing its leading scorer is a huge blow for any squad. It's especially devastating for one still taking baby steps to develop other options.

It's hard then, to imagine the U.S. will be gold-medal favorites in China. Wambach, though has no doubts.

"I have the utmost confidence in this team bringing home the gold," she said.

Others would have a lot more faith if Wambach was still playing.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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