Figuring out how to best use 32-year-old Abby Wambach will be one of the first priorities of the incoming U.S. women's national team coach.
At least that's the counsel of outgoing coach Pia Sundhage. And Sundhage has led the United States to three consecutive finals and won two Olympic golds in five years, so she might have a handle on this thing.
To celebrate that last gold, the U.S. women are on a 10-game celebration tour. Sundhage will leave after a pair of friendlies against Australia – a 2-1 win in Carson, Calif. on Sept. 16 and an upcoming one in Commerce City, Colo. three days later – to manage her home country of Sweden. The U.S. Soccer Federation has yet to name a replacement.
When asked if she had any advice for her replacement, whoever that may be, Sundhage immediately thought of Wambach.
"Do the right thing with Abby, because she's unique," Sundhage said. "That doesn't necessarily mean she needs to play every single minute, but use her and create a role for her because she's unique."
Wambach, at 32, is already a legend. She's scored 145 goals in 190 international matches. (I will now pause for you to try to digest those numbers. I, for one, can't even count that high.) Only Mia Hamm, with 158, has scored more in international play.
For a decade Wambach has pulverized defenses. She routinely brushes aside the best women's players as if their bones were hollow. Wambach has that knack, like Radamel Falcao and other great target players, of appearing several feet taller than she is. In person, off the field, she's a casual 5-foot-11. On the pitch, in play, she's roughly 11 feet – a giant playing down several weight classes.
"When you play with one of those kind of players it's a little weird. You don't really understand the full breadth of it," Megan Rapinoe said. "But to have as many goals as she's had and the impact on the style of play with just the type of player she is, I don't think we'll have another one for a while."
For years Wambach has defined the American style of play. Knock the ball high into the box and chances are she'll leap over even the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper to get her noggin on it. Think of the extra time hail-mary header in the 2011 World Cup against Brazil. Think of [insert one of the 100 other examples here].
Rapinoe, who assisted that goal against Brazil, said Wambach makes the attacking midfielders look good.
"I just float stuff up there and she goes after it," Rapinoe said. "It's nice."
It is nice. It also won't last forever. Wambach's body, battered and bruised by its use as a battering ram for the past decade, is showing signs of wear.
The U.S. is also adding a more technical approach to the attack, with ball-pixies like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan adding another wrinkle to the offense. Sundhage talks of a team with two devastating weapons: an unstoppable long-ball option and an increasing technical ability.
"I would say that the next step for this team is, if you find technical players, you can decide how you want to play," Sundhage said. "Because you have speed and you have strength, so if you want to play that way you can do that. If you want to keep it sexy you can do that."
As the technical side develops – and other teams have lapped the U.S. women, once easily the global leaders, in this area – Wambach's necessity will diminish (though her holdup play and finesse on the ball is undervalued).
"We always need to keep evolving," Rapinoe said. "The game's evolving every day, especially the women's game – just exponential growth."
As the world game matures, Sundhage thinks a new generation needs to fold into this current crop of gold-winning women. She continued her advice to her successor: "At the same time make sure you have some new players . . . and find that mix."
That'll hopefully ease the reliance on Wambach, but it doesn't diminish how essential she will be for the upcoming transition. Sundhage pointed out several times that she's grown as a coach over the past half decade, in large part because of what Christine Rampone and Wambach have taught her about leadership. As one example, Wambach, captain after Rampone left at half time, suggested that Shannon Boxx, who had her entire family in the stadium to watch Sunday's game, take the game-winning penalty.
Matching Hamm's scoring record will have to wait.
"There's certain players that are stars," Sundhage said. "I will look back and I will think, 'You know what? I stood close to Abby Wambach and I talked to her. I think that is cool. That is cool.'"
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