Abby Wambach is okay if Canadians still despise her.
It’s been nearly 10 months since her U.S. soccer team beat Canada in the semi-finals at the London Olympics and went on to win gold. In a match that captivated the country and sparked debate for days, it was the veteran Wambach who counted out seconds within earshot of the referee, and prompted the game-changing moment. The ref whistled the Canadian goalkeeper for time-wasting, a rare, nearly unprecedented call that led to an equalizing goal by the Americans and their eventual victory.
The U.S. soccer star kicks up her long legs at a suburban soccer centre just outside Buffalo, after a practice with her pro team, the Western New York Flash of the start-up National Women’s Soccer League. She is not disrespectful, but matter-of-fact and genuine. If Canadians remain angry for her role in the theatre that unfolded on the Olympic pitch at Old Trafford last August, which put women’s soccer on front pages around the world, Wambach considers that a positive outcome beyond the game itself. And if it means sports fans buy into the smouldering rivalry between the two soccer foes, she’ll wear the enemy label with pride.
The two teams meet on Sunday in a soldout friendly at Toronto’s BMO Field for the first time since that remarkable Olympic match. Canada’s Olympic bronze medalists are still emotional about being denied a place in the gold-medal match. Christine Sinclair’s effort was super-human. She gave Canada the lead three times.
But the United States won 4-3 in extra time, in a contest better known for two controversial whistles by Norwegian official Christina Pedersen.
They were moves the Canadians called shocking and one-sided in tear-filled post-match interviews.
Many on the losing side couldn’t bring themselves to watch the video until recently. This ‘friendly’ will be anything but.
“Some people called me whiny for counting out loud, some fans said they thought it was brilliant,” said Wambach, the 2012 FIFA female player of the year and two-time Olympic gold medalist. “I sat next to a Canadian on the plane and he said to me ‘you didn’t win that game, the referee gave it to you.’ I laughed, but I understand how he felt. The Twitter universe blew up with Canadian fans saying what they thought of me. But I think it’s great. That controversy got Canadians behind their team, and that’s only good for women’s sports. Sometimes there has to be a goat on some level, and I’m totally fine with that being me.”
South of the border Wambach is a bona fide star. An enormous Nike ad depicting her triumphant celebration of a big international goal hangs prominently inside the practice facility. Since her famous goal over Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final put women’s soccer back into the spotlight across the United States, Wambach has travelled the world for speaking appearances and interviews. She has countless endorsements, including significant contracts with Gatorade, Nike and Panasonic.
She doesn’t have the pony-tailed All-American look of many other female soccer stars. She scores crucial goals time and again on the big stage. When it comes to winning leaping headers through the air, she is one of the most dominant female players in history – some 40 per cent of her goals have been scored that way. Wambach is 5-foot-11, lean, broad-shouldered and formidably muscular with a short haircut. She’s the subject of a recent ESPN documentary and one of the naked athlete models in its magazine’s popular Body Issue.
The 12-year veteran of the U.S. senior national team is the most talkative player on the field at any time, conversing, urging, motioning, leading, cheering, hollering, celebrating, and controlling the tempo. Her teammates once gave her a T-shirt that read ‘I’m talking and I can’t shut up.’ She has spoken out repeatedly against FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup games on artificial turf, saying the men would refuse to play their biggest international tournament on anything but grass and the world’s female players deserve better.
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.
“It was one of the most courageous performances I have ever seen from a Canadian team from whom very little was expected, but they nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of Olympic soccer through sheer determination,” recalls Arlo White, the NBC soccer commentator. “The Canadian players came away from that situation as heroines. They gained a lot of respect among soccer fans and larger sporting fans that they’ll take forward into future tournaments, especially the 2015 World Cup. Canada arrived that night as a force in women’s soccer. Even if they’re not quite as technically proficient as the world’s leading sides, they showed there is no lack of heart there.”
As Moscato and McLeod leave the pitch after their game in Rochester that night, they admit it evoked some sensitive memories to see Wambach again. When asked if they hate Wambach, they both shake their heads, insisting there’s a healthy respect for the American star.
“For me, definitely it was emotional to see her again,” said McLeod, who once played alongside Wambach on the Washington Freedom in the defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league. “But there are certain people who make you want to win more, and she is definitely one of those people.”
Of the 52 games against Canada, the U.S. team has won 44, and 23 of the past 27. Canada hasn’t beaten the Americans since 2001.
“We just genuinely want to win for once because we haven’t beaten the U.S. in 12 years,” Moscato said. “There is a real fuel there, there is a lot to play for, and she is one of the big reasons for their success, so we have to nullify her. It’s part of the game plan.”
CLOSING THE GAP
The ultra-confident Wambach is thrilled that the Olympics pumped up Sinclair’s status and their rivalry so significantly.
“Christine Sinclair had an incredible game, and Canada played like an inspired team, and I can honestly say that was so cool to see,” Wambach said. “It wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. was beating Canada 6-0, but now look at the strides Canada has made; look at how much better their players are and how much impact their coach has had. Sinc has become a legend in Canada, hasn’t she? I think that’s amazing.”
Sinclair likes where her team is ahead of this friendly, but says with a deep breath “Oh, there’s a lot more work to be done.” The 12-year veteran recalls her early years on the national team when the gap between Canada and the United States was frustratingly huge.
“I remember thinking, ‘if we don’t play the best game we’ve ever played right now, we’ll lose 8-0. And we would lose like that, they would embarrass us right off the field,’” Sinclair said. “Yet we all had this crazy dream that Canada could win a medal at a World Cup or Olympic Games. It took 10 years of hard work but it happened.”
What the Canadian captain from Burnaby, B.C., wants most now is consistency. A strong effort in one game is not enough. She believes the team has potential to beat top nations but wonders if it can win repeatedly in a tournament setting. The 2015 World Cup, held in Canada, will be the test. And it appears this team knows how to grab a nation’s attention.
“For so long, I’ve been on this national team, and played soccer professionally, and pretty much nobody noticed,” Sinclair said. “To finally have the spotlight, to finally have people caring about what we do, we have waited for this a long time.”
U.S. vs. CANADA
Rankings: U.S., No. 1; Canada, No. 7 (tied with England)
Record (2013): U.S., 6-0-2; Canada, 4-3-2
Key Olympians not in the lineup: U.S., Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Shannon Boxx; Canada, Marie-Eve Nault