Only she booted the ball over the crossbar instead.
She fell prostrate on the field at Rutgers University, dropping her head in her forearms. The world’s best female soccer player had a nearly perfect chance to be the heroine in her first game with her hometown team. Only this time she missed out on the storybook ending.
Shortly after the game, Wambach got on her Twitter account and apologized:
“A sincere apology to all the @WNYFlash fans, players and staff. I take responsibility for not doing my job tonight. It won’t happen again.”
The statement represents an integral part of who Abby Wambach is and how she relates to her position as the face of women’s soccer, as the person so many are looking to not only for success for the American national team, but to finally launch a viable and lasting professional women’s soccer league in the United States.
“If you know anything about me, I really try to invest everything I have into the teams that I play on. ... I take it as a personal responsibility,” Wambach said. “Not a pressure, a responsibility that I feel comfortable doing. It’s on a daily basis and I think that Tweet kind of exudes who I am. I want my teammates to know that I hold myself most accountable. I want my fans and of course the organization to know that it wasn’t good enough for me, and it shouldn’t have been for them either.”
Her job is to score goals for whatever team she happens to be on at the time. Right now, that includes her commitments to the WNY Flash, who started the season with that loss at Sky Blue then followed it with a 1-1 draw at Washington.
Saturday is their home opener, a 7:35 match against the Boston Breakers at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester. Wambach suffered a blow to the head late in the game against Washington. She was cleared medically on Monday and is expected to play in front of at least 5,000 people on Saturday.
Wambach, 32, has had homecoming games before, but none quite like this. Her journey to soccer stardom began in earnest when she joined the U.S. national team in 2001. Her breakout performance came in 2004 when her header in extra time gave the United States a 2-1 win over Brazil for the Olympic gold medal in Athens.
She is the second all-time leading goal scorer in international women’s soccer history. Her 152 goals are behind only Mia Hamm’s 158. Wambach followed Hamm’s lead again, becoming the second American player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year honor in 2012 – the first since Mia won back to back honors in 2001 and 2002.
“I’ve been watching Abby since she came onto [the national] team,” Olympic and World Cup teammate Alex Morgan said in January after Wambach won the FIFA Player of the Year. “That’s when I really grew my passion for this game. She’s really become a great ambassador for the sport. I really admire that and I’ve learned so much from her.”
While she’s made a splash on the international stage, Wambach has been part of the fits and starts of professional women’s soccer in the United States.
Wambach played in both previous attempts at a professional women’s soccer league – the WUSA and WPS. Now, she’s back for the third go-round, the NWSL. This time, the league is run and partially funded by U.S. Soccer and the national governing bodies for the sport in Canada and Mexico. Wambach was assigned to the WNY Flash by U.S. Soccer, bringing her back to her native Rochester to help build the new league and continue her efforts to grow the game and provide a source of inspiration for kids who were just like her growing up.
It was a bright, sunny day and spring temperatures were finally reaching into the 60s and 70s outside Sahlen’s Sports Park in Elma, where the Flash train. Nice to finally have some sunshine and warm weather, right?
“Yes, it is. I haven’t lived in upstate New York since I was 17,” the 32-year old Wambach said. “I forgot a bit about the winters.”
But she has never forgotten about her roots. The youngest of seven children, Wambach is close with her parents and her siblings. And while she may have repressed her memories of some bitter, long-lasting winters, she distinctly remembers what it was like to grow up in Rochester. To play professionally in her hometown seems to be more of an honor and an opportunity to her than a heavy burden.
“To be able to come back and play not only in front of the people that stuck with me through thick and thin but my family, it’s a blessing,” Wambach said. “I’m going to actually be able to have an impact on the next generation of kids, to talk to these kids about what it takes to get to the next level. Because, you know, I literally have been sitting in those seats. This is where I’m from.
“I just think there’s so much to be said about being able to look at a role model and say, wow, I can do that maybe one day because she did.”
The word “role model” is thrown about when it comes to athletes, perhaps even more when it comes to female athletes. But modeling success for a new generation of soccer players and fans is more than just part of the job description for Wambach. For her, it’s an opportunity.
“What I was lacking at 10 and 15 years old was watching women professional soccer players do what maybe I could do. I’m the exception to the rule. I kind of paved my own path on some level.
“Hopefully that next generation can literally watch what we’re doing, see how we put our shoes on, see how we put our jerseys on. See how we approach a penalty kick. See how we deal with a controversial call and the drama of situations. Those are crucial learning tools for any kid. ... To be able to do it in the community I grew up in, it’s just a perfect fit.”
Take a drive anywhere in the 585 area code and you’ll see Wambach’s image on billboards. She is the region’s favorite daughter and arguably its most successful athlete. Her accomplishments and goal scoring have earned her accolades and made her the face of women’s soccer. And while she appreciates the universal perspective, she keeps herself focused on the very small pieces, knowing that they add up to a greater whole.
“The way in which I like to look at it is, it’s a responsibility that in order for the right way for this sport to grow, my actions matter,” Wambach said. “My performance matters every single day. ... It’s never just about one person. I’m a team-first mentality kind of person. I never have ever scored a goal without another pass from a teammate. And that’s just the truth. And I think metaphorically, it works the same when you talk about taking the responsibility of an entire game on your shoulders.
“Even though I could be a celebrity in Rochester, I’m still from Rochester, so I don’t really look at myself like that,” she said. “I still put my pants on one leg at a time. I still brush my teeth every morning like every person does.
“I have done great things. That doesn’t mean I’m a good person. I try to do good things outside of playing soccer to make my family proud, to make my parents know that they did bring up a wholesome person who doesn’t just think about themselves and has an awareness and a humbleness about them.”
WNY Flash vs. Boston Breakers
Sahlen’s Stadium, 460 Oak St., Rochester
Directions: I-90 East to Exit 47. I-490 East to Exit 12/Brown Street. Take Allen Street toward Broad Street. Allen Street becomes Platt Street. Turn left on Oak Street. Arrive at Sahlen’s Stadium.