As the United States prepares to play Sweden in its second game of Women’s World Cup group play, one thing has become abundantly clear: Abby Wambach needs to start — on the bench.
This isn’t some new assertion.
Cries for Wambach, 35, to yield her starting role to the fresher faces of the U.S. women’s national team have been ringing out for years. However, after watching USA’s unimaginative and uninspired play with Wambach up top against Australia, it’s never been more clear that for the U.S. to move forward it needs Wambach to step aside.
I’m not saying it’s time to put Wambach out to pasture. She’s proven time and time again her value as one of the world’s most dominant aerial threats. But changing her role from super starter to super sub might be the best course of action for the Americans' longterm success.
I’m not alone in this theory. Pia Sundhage who coached 107 U.S. matches before retiring to lead her native Sweden, said as much to the New York Times in a candid interview.
“I said that to Abby,” she recalled. “I told her: ‘If I stayed, you would be a sub. The best sub ever. But a sub.’ There was no question about that in my mind.”
This Women’s World Cup, unlike any before it, has been a glimpse into the evolution of women’s soccer. It’s the largest field of teams, having expanded from 16 to 24, because countries have started to invest in the sport and make women’s soccer a priority rather than an afterthought. During the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, Wambach was an anomaly. A big, strong forward presence that was as adept with her head as she was with her feet. She was one of the most feared players in the world simply because whenever she was around the goal, there was a chance something good — or bad depending on which side you were on — was going to happen.
But her success has brought about the rise of copycat forwards and determined defenders. Teams are no longer unprepared or unequipped for Wambach’s style. Consequently, she’s faded into being just another aging player.
And while she’s faded, other U.S. stars have emerged. Names like Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Christen Press dominated the headlines leading up to this year’s World Cup as keys in the U.S. run to another World Cup finals berth.
Ideally, the U.S. should use Leroux and Morgan up front with Press as an attacking central midfielder almost like a triangle with Press staying high instead of dropping back into defense.
That would give the U.S. speed and skill up front and a more attacking style in the middle. Against Australia — and South Korea in the final send-off game — the U.S. midfield was stagnant. There was no aggressiveness or leadership. It seemed content to give the opposing midfielders and forwards room to roam instead of challenging the space. Then, if the midfielders won the ball, their first option was to send it to one of the wings and attempt a cross to find Wambach’s head.
While this was a great strategy in 2007 and 2011, defenses are wise to it now and it hasn’t been nearly as effective as it used to be. Part of that is because Wambach has lost a step. She’s old, it happens. Even world-class athletes can’t beat Father Time, especially in a game that is made for young, fresh legs.
With a trio of Morgan, Leroux and Press, there’s passing, there’s strategy, there’s backdoor cuts and runs off the ball. There’s imagination and ingenuity and, more importantly, players who are better equipped to beat defenders as young and fresh as they are.
Of course, the one problem with my attacking plan is Morgan’s game fitness. Prior to appearing in the second half against Australia, she hadn’t played with the U.S. in more than 50 days. She hadn’t even really been training with the program until the days leading up to the World Cup. And that rust was evident. She had a couple errant touches that weren’t typical of her play. And it’s going to take some time for her to be able to play a full 90-minute game.
But what’s the harm in starting her, pressing forward, trying to get a lead, and then allowing Wambach to come in when Morgan is gassed? Many teams in this tournament would love to have the option of replacing an Alex Morgan with an Abby Wambach. And Wambach is more than capable of going full speed for 30 minutes rather than 90.
After watching Group D on Monday, Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas said the group shouldn’t be named “The Group of Death” but rather “The Group of Exhaustion.” Both games were played fast and, while the U.S. was ultimately able to outlast Australia, Sweden was lucky to come away with a draw against a speedy Nigerian team. The U.S. needs to learn from Nigeria and apply the same youthful, pacey pressure on the Swedes early and then hammer their tired legs late with a fresh Wambach.
U.S. Soccer was once the trailblazer in women’s soccer, but its insistence on keeping Wambach in the starting lineup is putting it in a position to be left behind.