MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany – Through every training session, every match and even during periods of downtime, United States star Abby Wambach has dealt with discomfort that ranges from mild to extreme and everything in between due to an ever-present Achilles injury that has refused to heal.
Yet just like in last Sunday's incredible World Cup quarterfinal victory over Brazil, the 31-year-old striker was right where the USA needed her most in a nerve-racking semifinal against France on Wednesday at Borussia Park.
Wambach was the star once more, rising at the far post to break a 1-1 deadlock with a headed goal in the second half as the Americans scraped past the French 3-1 to advance to Sunday's final in Frankfurt.
"I have inflammation where the Achilles is attached so there is a lot of pain there at different times," Wambach said. "It is not always so bad when it is warmed up but the next day is hurts a lot and it is hard to get out of bed sometimes.
"But it is a World Cup and we are in the finals so I am not going anywhere. I just play through it and do the job."
Wambach has shied away from talking too much about her condition, partly because she does not like to make any excuses and partly to avoid alerting the opposition to its existence. Perhaps appropriately, given her character, the injury is at its most painful when she is jumping for headers, like for the two critical goals she has scored in the past two games.
She first injured her Achilles a year ago and has been bothered by it ever since. Wambach must receive regular treatment and rehabilitation and she gets special attention from the medical staff when it comes to warm-downs, stretching and rehydration.
However, adding a World Cup winners' medal to her career résumé is so important to Wambach that missing out on even a minute of this tournament was never an option, even after head coach PIa Sundhage publicly considered resting her during the group stage.
"Hopefully after the World Cup and the WPS season, I can take some time and get it properly healed," said Wambach, who plays for the magicJack in Women's Professional Soccer. "It has been rough."
Wambach's presence was never felt more strongly than in Wednesday's player-of-the-match performance in which she turned the semifinal on its head with her own.
Going into the match as a heavy favorite, the U.S. seemed to have matters under control once Lauren Cheney had opened the scoring after nine minutes. Heather O'Reilly burst into a strong run down the left flank and sent in an accurate low cross, which Cheney cleverly guided past France goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.
However, from that moment on, the European side began to get a significant foothold in the game, dominating possession and creating a series of chances. Although the USA went into halftime up 1-0, Sundhage had plenty of cause for concern.
It was well-founded. Led by midfield playmaker Louisa Necib, France stepped up another gear in the second half and grabbed a deserved, if somewhat fortunate, equalizer after 55 minutes when Sonia Bompastor sent over a hopeful cross from the left only to see it evade everyone and creep inside the far post. For American goalkeeper Hope Solo, it was a rare moment of bitter disappointment as she was fooled by Gaetane Thinay's attempt to strike the ball and was unable to intercept the cross.
The Americans looked shaken and disjointed, and an upset – France had never before reached a World Cup semifinal and has little previous pedigree in the women's game – was very much in the cards.
But then Wambach, the USA's most clutch performer, stood tall once more. Cheney floated a high, hanging corner kick that confused the French backline and Wambach powered forward, launching herself at the ball and directing it past Sapowicz and into the net for a 2-1 lead.
It was a deflating blow for France to find itself behind after such domination. And as the French threw players forward in search of another tying goal, gaps opened up. Alex Morgan, one of two highly effective substitutes alongside Megan Rapinoe, was sent clear on goal by Rapinoe and chipped the ball over Sapowicz to seal the victory.
"Our team has this ability to fight through adversity, to stick together when the going gets rough," Wambach said. "I couldn't be more excited and proud to be in the final. As soon as the whistle went, I could only think one thing.
"One more game."
- Abby Wambach