NEW YORK — If Abby Wambach fails to win a World Cup title this summer, the striker will retain her status as an American soccer legend. That all-time international scoring record isn't going anywhere. Neither are her two Olympic gold medals, or the millions who revere her.
No, Wambach's legacy is safe and sound. But don't tell her that.
When asked Wednesday if she needed the World Cup to cap her decorated career, Wambach was characteristically candid.
"My agent is here — he probably would kill me for saying this," Wambach told reporters, giving in to a split-second of hesitation before rolling on. "But right now, you're damn right I need it. It's all that I'm thinking about. It's all that's on my mind."
Thus is the mindset of Wambach, whose 182 goals for the U.S. national team have yielded a slew of silverware without producing a World Cup crown. Although it remains to be seen if Wambach will stay in the U.S. picture through the 2016 Olympics, she made it clear this is her final shot at the biggest prize in soccer.
"Obviously, it being my last [World Cup], I want it to be fairy tale-like," she said. "And I want to go out on top."
Wambach, who will turn 35 next week, made her U.S. debut in 2001 — two years after the Americans' most recent World Cup triumph. After experiencing semifinal defeat in 2003 and 2007, Wambach sparked a run to the final four years ago in Germany — only for the U.S. to fall short on penalty kicks against Japan.
On that day, Wambach scored the go-ahead goal in extra time. For 13 minutes, before Japan snatched a late equalizer, it looked like she'd be adding "World Cup final game-winner" to her crowded resume.
"She's had such a storybook career with everything that she's won," U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn told Goal USA. "It's this one thing that's been out of her grasp, and she was so close to winning it last time. To know that this means so much to her, I think it makes all of us like, 'OK, this is her last hurrah. We're going to do it for her.'"
That "last hurrah" sentiment has spread well beyond the U.S. locker room. As the Wambach-centric questions kept coming during Wednesday's media day in Times Square, goalkeeper Hope Solo quipped that "it feels like Abby is gone already."
While Wambach is certainly not gone, she may not be the omnipresent influence American fans have come to expect in previous tournaments. When the U.S. faced Mexico in October with a World Cup spot on the line, coach Jill Ellis opted to bring Wambach on as a substitute. This year, Wambach has played nine matches — four starts and five appearances off the bench.
If the U.S. wants to win it all in Canada, the squad will have to play seven matches on artificial turf in a 28-day span. After logging every minute in Germany four years ago, Wambach understands she's being groomed for a more complementary role this time around.
"As a competitor, I want to play every minute of every game," Wambach said. "But as a realist, knowing I'm going to be 35 when the World Cup kicks off, I give a lot of credit to Jill and our coaching staff and [assistant coach Tony Gustavsson] in that they have stuck to their game plan."
That said, there is little doubt in the U.S. camp that Wambach can still be a force when the chips are down. This is a player, after all, with 22 goals scored over three World Cups and two trips to the Olympics.
"She's a plain winner," Solo said. "When you say she's a winner, that encompasses everything — her drive, her leadership, her intensity. For me, she's the best teammate. She knows how to win and she'll do whatever it takes."
Added midfielder Carli Lloyd: "She just gets it done. When the going gets tough and we need her to step up, she does it."
Yet the statistics only tell one side of Wambach's story. In April, Time magazine tabbed the Rochester, New York, native as one of the world's 100 most influential people after she stood up against FIFA in the name of gender equality.
Once the organization accepted the Canadian Soccer Association's proposal to host this summer's tournament on turf — a surface never used in a men's World Cup — it was Wambach who spearheaded the campaign to bring in grass fields. Although the players ultimately dropped their discrimination lawsuit, they're confident the attention ensured that no more women's tournaments will be played on turf.
"I can get emotional talking about Abby," Ellis said. "In terms of being a spokesperson, in terms of being a role model, in terms of being a clutch performer, she has done so, so much for this game."
That passion for growing the sport is largely what drives Wambach's thirst for a World Cup victory. Sixteen years after the U.S. last won the tournament, she wants to see the impact another triumph would have on women's soccer stateside.
Wambach craves this World Cup — for herself, her teammates, her country and her sport.
"All of us have to be willing to be forever disappointed in not winning because that's what it takes," Wambach said. "You have to completely give in to it. You have to completely allow yourself to be crushed by something. It's like love — and if all of us give in to it, then I think we have a chance at this."