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Is USA's Abby Wambach outdated or just brutally effective? | Football | The Guardian

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Women's World Cup 2015 Interview

Is USA's Abby Wambach outdated or just brutally effective?

Caitlin Murray in Vancouver

On Friday, Wambach did not start in a World Cup match for only the second time in her career – but after a scoreless draw, they may need her direct approach

@caitlinmurr

Tue 16 Jun 2015 05.00 EDT Last modified on Mon 20 Feb 2017 07.43 EST

Abby Wambach cools off during training. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

When American forward and goalscoring legend Abby Wambach assessed what was happening on the pitch at the USA’s second group game of this Women’s World Cup, she had to do it from the bench.

For only the second time in her career and the first time in 12 years, Wambach did not start in a World Cup match. Wambach didn’t come on until the 68th minute as the USA played out a scoreless draw against Sweden on Friday. They now need a point against Nigeria to be sure of qualification; Nigeria need to win.

This day was going to come eventually, but is now the right time? It depends on who you ask, but Wambach said she doesn’t mind her new role – it’s just a different challenge.

“As a sub, your mentality in terms of how you approach the game is a bit different,” Wambach told the Guardian from training in Vancouver, where the Americans face Nigeria on Tuesday night. “You get to analyze the game as it’s going on without being completely transfixed inside of it.

“You get to see where things are breaking down, so that when you do get on, you hope that your skill, your talent, will be that thing that can help your team beat with whatever issues we’ve been dealing with.”

Wambach’s primary talent, of course, is in the air, and it makes her a dangerous weapon on set pieces and crosses. When the ball is on the ground, however, Wambach can become somewhat neutralized, which makes her an interesting conundrum for the USA coach staff.

At 35, and as a product of an earlier era of the US women’s program, Wambach doesn’t possess the skills that modern coaches now look for in a forward. She isn’t very fast, she isn’t technically great, and there’s nothing unpredictable in her game.

But when she’s scoring goals, none of that seems to matter. She towers over defenders in the box, she is difficult to take down, and she knows how to use her head. It has served her well: she holds the world’s international goalscoring record for men and women – 182 in total – and a bulk of them were scored with her head.

Still, her presence in the USA team has become a topic of dispute. As the Americans slip in the world rankings, the role of older players like Wambach faces more scrutiny from fans and critics who worry that the Americans are not evolving.

Wambach was brought into the national team fold when the top teams in the world, like USA and Norway, won by playing direct football. But the game has become more technical, with possession-oriented teams like Japan and Germany leading the way.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Abby Wambach tries to break the deadlock against Sweden. Photograph: Michael Chow/USA Today Sports

Coach Jill Ellis told the Guardian last month that a direct style of play needs to remain one of the strategies available to the Americans. Wambach agrees, and she doesn’t see it as a methodology that lacks sophistication.

“Teams sit back? We’ve got to get the wide and pull them out of their shape. Get [wingers] Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press the ball. Get our outside backs forward,” Wambach said.

“Get numbers up in our attack so we can get crosses off in goalscoring positions, rather than just pumping the ball in the box and hoping for the best. We actually want to have some systematic approach in our attack.”

It’s a small sample size, but Wambach critics who think she forces the Americans to play long suffered a setback on Friday. Wambach didn’t start in her first World Cup match since 2003, and the Americans didn’t look any better than they have in the recent past. In fact, they looked pretty listless in the attack, shut out by the Swedes with few looks on goal.

Though there were plenty of problems with the USA’s performance against Sweden, goalscoring service was available. Sydney Leroux and Julie Johnston, both unmarked, managed to run into each other in the box trying to get a head on a free-kick. Leroux was unable to beat a defender to get a head on a cross. One cross was just too high for Rapinoe, who nearly grazed it.

The Americans forced two saves out of Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. One of them was from Wambach, who got on the end of a long, floating cross from Rapinoe to nail a diving header that almost went in.

“My focus, first and foremost, was getting my head on the end of a cross,” Wambach said of her approach as a substitute. “I did that. The goalkeeper made a great save. If it’s on grass, I think it goes in.”

The timing of Wambach’s new foray into the role of a World Cup substitute was interesting. A new interview with ex-USA coach and current Swedish coach Pia Sundhage came out before the match, and Sundhage said she felt Wambach shouldn’t start any more. Ellis used to be Sundhage’s assistant and said she didn’t start Wambach on Friday to get “some pace up top and mobility.”

But after the scoreless draw, Sundhage’s tone seemed different. She declined to say if the Swedes would have had a harder time defending against Wambach in the box had she started, but she admitted Wambach brings a unique threat whenever she’s in.

“I won’t say if it’s harder or not, but Abby is a good player,” she said. “Every time the ball is in the air in the box, you get a bit...”

Sundhage paused and made a sound as if gasping for air. “It’s because she’s there. She’s the best.”

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