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Abby Wambach, who scored the winning goal against Canada at the London Games last August, is thrilled that the Olympics pumped up Canadian Christine Sinclair’s status and their rivalry so significantly. Canada plays the United States in Toronto on Sunday. (ANDREA COMAS/REUTERS)
Abby Wambach, who scored the winning goal against Canada at the London Games last August, is thrilled that the Olympics pumped up Canadian Christine Sinclair’s status and their rivalry so significantly. Canada plays the United States in Toronto on Sunday. (ANDREA COMAS/REUTERS)

soccer

American Wambach has no regrets over Olympic controversy Add to ...

With a stellar game on Sunday in Toronto, Wambach could reach one of the most hallowed records in women’s soccer. Her 155 career goals in international play puts her just three goals shy of the career record of 158 set by Mia Hamm. Wambach was a youngster back when Hamm was a sensation on the U.S. team and calls the now-retired star one of her greatest teachers.

“Mia was a household name and when she stepped away, the popularity of women’s soccer went away with her for a while,” said Wambach, who turns 33 on Sunday. “I was 24 when Mia retired and our team’s popularity went into a huge lull, and I tried to be the face of the team, the goal scorer and the leader – I put a lot of pressure on myself to be all of those things.”

Christine Sinclair is that equivalent force for Canada, and she sits behind Wambach in the race for the record with 145 goals. Though they have long been compared, she doesn’t view her on-field rival as an enemy.

“Between Abby and I, there is a mutual respect because I know how long you have to play at a top level to reach that kind of number and even if she breaks the record first, I believe both of us will just keep battling as long as our bodies will let us play,” said the 29-year-old Sinclair. “I’ve had the feeling for many years that we can beat the U.S. We have to score the goal in the last 10 seconds, not them.”

REUNION IN ROCHESTER

The day following an interview in Elma, Wambach’s Flash have a game at Sahlen’s Stadium in downtown Rochester. Several members of her family squeeze into box seating on the brisk May evening and cheer wildly as she’s introduced as Abby “the pride of Rochester” Wambach. A gaggle of nieces and nephews hold up a cardboard cut-out of her head.

In the second half, she ties the game with her signature diving header. Later, as Wambach leaves the stadium, she signs autographs and poses for photos with young girls lined up hundreds deep.

The Flash better the Chicago Red Stars, a team that features Olympians from the Canadian squad, defender Carmelina Moscato and Erin McLeod, the goalkeeper on the other end of the controversial whistle last summer. Wambach goes into the club game knowing it will be the first time she sees McLeod since the Olympics. “I think Erin might hate me now,” she said.

The United States felt McLeod was stalling play to protect Canada’s lead, so Wambach began counting aloud each second McLeod held the ball. Finally, the referee took the bait, whistling the goalkeeper for time-wasting, a rarely-made call based on the loosely enforced time restriction of six seconds. The call stunned even the biggest soccer experts. An indirect free kick inside the box was awarded, which hit a Canadian defender in the hand and arms, and while most officials give grace for a such a play in tight confines, Pederson awarded the United States a penalty kick for a hand ball. Wambach took the kick and coolly scored.

Alex Morgan would score in extra time to win it for the United States, fulfilling the American storyline of a rematch with Japan for gold after its painful loss in the 2011 World Cup final. The devastated Canadians collapsed on the field in tears.

“I didn’t control the game, the referee did,” Wambach said. “I never expected the referee to make that call; I was just hoping the referee would hurry the keeper up. To be honest, I never knew she could make that call. I didn’t know the play would stop and we would get a free kick. I just wanted the ball back in play, that’s all. I’m a competitor.”

The game was the talk of the Olympics and back in Canada. Sinclair was tabbed to lead the Canadian athletes in the Closing Ceremonies. Thousands surprised the soccer stars at the Vancouver airport when they arrived home.

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