Pressure is on Wambach's replacements
Abby Wambach might be living a Shakespearean tragedy, or comedy if she had it her way. She'd rather the fuss over her broken leg be "Much Ado About Nothing." Addressing the media over a conference call last week, Wambach reflected on her newfound perspective, "It's going to be important not to forget about this team because one of their star players has gone down. I do not encapsulate this whole team. Frankly, I'm a little shocked that anybody really cares about little old me."
It was painful to see Wambach's violent tumble, but it was something else to see her fluttering hand call for help, the figurative white flag for all who looked on with dismay. The immediate conclusion? The U.S. women would have to surrender gold medal expectations and hopes for another world championship without Abby the Goliath.
Wambach quickly assures otherwise, "There's no doubt this team can win a gold medal. You just have to open your eyes."
It wasn't enough to suffer a humiliating loss to Brazil last World Cup, which the team had finally reconciled after nearly imploding last fall. It wasn't enough to lose Kristine Lilly for the year, and then Cat Whitehill and Leslie Osborne to back-to-back ACL tears. But it was almost too much to lose a marquee player, one away from 100 goals and on the cusp of leading the U.S. to the next Mia-esque reign -- and to the Brazilians of all teams. This is what we call textbook (and heart wrenching) irony.
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On the bright side, the final blow will serve as more fuel to the fire, especially for U.S. players who've operated as the appendages behind the team's media darling the last two years. Even Abby grasps this conundrum, and she hopes her teammates do too.
"I don't think there is an expectation for somebody to step in and take my place," Wambach said. "I think you would be setting yourself up for failure only because if you knew how loud I was, you would know that nobody would ever reach that level of volume. But none of us are replaceable."
With this refrain in mind, Abby called her replacement. Dialing 20-year-old Lauren Cheney from the hospital, after she had a titanium rod inserted to reinforce her broken tibia and fibula, Wambach wanted to make sure the UCLA star had her head on straight.
The 5-foot-9 forward would need to use it, newly crowned as the tallest striker on the team.
"You've got to get your shoes out and start running," Wambach said. "I want you to go there and not feel bad being selected in this type of way. It won't do you, or the team any good."
There's no better person to take Abby's place than Cheney, who has played the role of the underdog since she was 3, overcoming open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect. When it comes to second chances, Cheney doesn't back down.
Cheney will also help plug the gap on offense, especially against larger opponents like Germany and Canada. But unless coach Pia Sundhage decides to put the next tallest player, and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart up top (she won't), the U.S. will just have to rely on Amy Rodriguez's speed, Natasha Kai's vertical and Cheney's ball skills. Flank midfielders Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly, who have each played forward in the past, will be supporting the inexperienced front line.
But if anyone knows they need to show up big at the Olympics, it's Kai, the yin to Wambach's yang. The two looked well on their way to becoming the most inspired scoring duo to come out of the U.S. camp since, well ... ever. The combination of a 5-foot-11 goal-scoring machine and a tattooed athletic prodigy was enough to psych out most defenses the U.S. faced in 2008. Fortunately, Kai possesses enough energy and attitude to designate her as a different kind of bull's-eye up top.
Wambach's loss will be just another challenge for Sundhage in a year that has already required her to be a team psychologist, cheerleader, friend and boss. But Sundhage, who experienced her share of hard knocks in her storied career for Sweden, felt Abby's injury most acutely of all. "On a personal level, she was pissed for me," Wambach said. "Pia and I have a special relationship. She came to my house, we sat and talked for a while. She's a realistic person. She knows that it was an accident that may never be explained."
Pia is not one to languish in the past, especially since her U.S. contract renewal largely depends on the medal color the Americans bring home. "She is a special one for sure," Sundhage acknowledged. "However, I am confident the team will respond. We will change the attacking style a little bit, but we've been able to adjust the way we've played at several points during this year."
It's up to Sundhage to turn a broken leg into a blessing in disguise. Without their goal-scoring crutch, the evolution of the newfangled American possession game will be expedited (or even liberated) in a way that was not possible before with Wambach on the pitch. Even the prolific striker was getting more assists than ever under Sundhage's direction -- a testament to the team's development. We might get to say goodbye to the long ball after all, which was designed specifically for Abby.
Olympic opponents will need an entirely new scouting report, because the U.S. is the one team that manages to be both an underdog and a favorite at the same time.
In the meantime, Wambach will focus on her short game, or at least "be completely in the moment" when it comes to her rehabilitation. Although her recovery could take as little as 12 weeks, her full comeback might take as long as a year -- just in time for the start of WPS. A lofty goal, but Wambach wouldn't have it any other way.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.