To reclaim the title against a deep field in Germany, the U.S. must harness its most potent weapon: the strike force of veteran Abby Wambach and phenom Alex Morgan
This is an article from the June 27, 2011 issue
Two stars. When the U.S. players pull on their uniforms at the Women's World Cup in Germany, that's what will be above the shield on their jerseys, twin symbols of soccer glory: the U.S.'s titles in 1991 and '99. Nike put those stars front and center for the first time on the team's newly designed uniforms—a none-too-subtle change—and while the pride that accompanies them is palpable, so too is the awareness that 12 long years have passed since Brandi Chastain's penalty kick against China clinched the Americans' last World Cup crown in a sold-out Rose Bowl.
The stars are "a constant reminder of something I haven't done yet," says forward Abby Wambach, who's set to play in her third Cup. "If you haven't won a World Cup [for the U.S.], there's a question mark next to your name. It doesn't mean you're a bad soccer player, but it means you didn't get it done when you needed to."
The U.S. has lost in the semifinals of the past two tournaments (by a combined 7--0 score), and while the Yanks won Olympic gold medals in 2004 and '08, there's a reason that World Cups, not Olympic golds, are commemorated with jersey stars. They just mean more. "Every time I put on that jersey I feel honored," says U.S. forward Alex Morgan, "but being able to put it on after the World Cup and see that extra star and feel like I contributed to it, that would feel like such an accomplishment."
The Americans won't be favored this year (page 53). Germany, the two-time defending champion, is the odds-on choice, playing on home soil in front of sold-out crowds, starting on Sunday when more than 72,000 will pack Berlin's Olympic Stadium to see the opener against Canada. The three-week tournament could become Germany's version of the seminal '99 U.S. event, a watershed moment for women's team sports in Europe.
But here's the thing: After the most difficult World Cup qualifying campaign in history, the U.S. women are poised to pull off the upset.
TWO STARS. If the Americans are going to raise the World Cup trophy for the first time this century, the decisive moments may come down to their two most lethal forwards. The proven threat is Wambach, the 31-year-old aerial warrior whose strike rate (118 goals in 157 international games) surpasses that of Mia Hamm. "I've been here three and a half years, and this is the best Abby Wambach I've ever seen," says U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. The emerging threat is Morgan, a coltish 21-year-old who scored the most important U.S. goal of the past three years, a stoppage-time strike in the first of two World Cup qualifying playoff matches against Italy last November. "In the next World Cup [in 2015], Alex could be one of the three best players" in the tournament, Sundhage says, a statement that sums up both Morgan's potential and the debate du jour among U.S. fans: Should Morgan be starting in this World Cup instead of coming off the bench?
No such questions attend to Wambach, who's made a full recovery from the broken left leg she suffered in the last warmup game before the '08 Olympics. That summer she watched on television as her teammates won the gold medal in Beijing. "It humbled me immensely," said Wambach, glistening with sweat after a late-May weightlifting session in New Jersey. "When your leg breaks, you literally can't stand on your own two feet. You feel weaker, vulnerable. I think that makes you a more well-rounded human being and more capable on the field."
After dealing with pain in her right Achilles over the past year, the 5'11" Wambach says she's peaking now and finally feeling the way she did five years ago, when she played with headlong abandon. "I'm only thinking, Put ball in goal," she says. "For me it's simple. I'm a goal scorer. I score with my head a lot, and I'm great in the air. In doing that, I've allowed myself to play even more physical." These days, Wambach says, she'll even throw herself into diving headers that she probably would have avoided as a younger player.
Wambach likes to compare her working relationship with Morgan with the one Hamm had with her eight years ago. When Morgan joined the U.S. team in '09, Sundhage told Wambach not to say too much to her. "But then you have Alex, who after every play will say, 'What do you think?' " says Wambach. "She's like a sponge right now, and I can remember feeling that way with Mia, wanting to know what she knows." Hamm was often hard on the young Wambach, unafraid to yell at her promising sidekick, and Wambach says she tries to do the same with Morgan. But tough love doesn't come naturally to Wambach.
"Abby motivates me so much on the field, but I think she's sometimes too nice to me," says the 5'7" Morgan, whose teammates call her Baby Horse because of her gangly gait. "She wants to get me a goal and help me whenever possible."
Sometimes Wambach's advice is simply for Morgan to trust her instincts. During one recent practice Morgan's teammates were screaming for her to pass and continued grumbling after she took an acutely angled shot that missed the far post by inches. Wambach sought Morgan out during the next water break. "You take that shot every damn time," Wambach told her. "Don't you ever let somebody tell you not to finish. That's what your strength is."
If Wambach is a pure punisher on the front line, Morgan is a sneaky predator with a voracious appetite for the goal. Morgan earned a political economy degree at Cal in 3½ years, and her soccer education has been on a similarly fast track. Blessed with speed, scoring instincts and a powerful, compact shot, the Diamond Bar, Calif., native netted the winning goal for the U.S. against North Korea in the final of the 2008 Under-20 World Cup in Chile (where local journalists fell in love with her looks and her game, dubbing her La Reina, the Queen). She was the top pick in this year's WPS draft, taken by the Western New York Flash, where she's playing alongside Marta, the five-time world player of the year, who is from Brazil.
"Marta is a little more similar to me than Abby, because she's a speedy forward who likes to find the gaps between defenders and make runs in behind, whereas Abby is more of a post-up forward," says Morgan, who likes to watch Spanish league games on her iPad in her spare time. "But you could also say Abby and I work better together because we complement each other better."
It was Wambach whose header found Morgan, a late-game substitute, in the final minutes of the U.S.'s scoreless World Cup playoff in Italy last November, giving the U.S. a vital 1--0 win in the first leg; the Yanks won the return game in Chicago a week later, 1--0, to clinch qualification. Morgan knew what to do on that goal, finishing with the clinical ruthlessness of one of her favorite players, Spanish striker David Villa. That ability to score in high-pressure situations helps explain why La Reina (who is dating Seattle Sounders midfielder Servando Carrasco) has begun following in Hamm's footsteps on Madison Avenue, landing endorsement deals with Nike and Coca-Cola.
And yet, for now at least, it hasn't earned her a spot in the U.S.'s starting lineup. Sundhage prefers the more experienced Amy Rodriguez, 24, next to Wambach, arguing that Rodriguez has a better understanding of the game's subtleties. "Both [Morgan and Rodriguez] have speed," says Sundhage, "but it's also about movement off the ball to make sure you're onside and have the right angle to give the ballcarrier enough time to play the ball." As a sub, the coach says, Morgan can turn and run at the goal every time she touches the ball. "But if you're in the starting lineup I can't tell you that," Sundhage adds. "That would be a bad message to the team."
"I'm not going to feel content with coming off the bench," says Morgan, "but at the same time I'm embracing the role I have—raising the energy and hopefully scoring goals when we need it."
The global landscape of women's soccer has undergone upheaval from 15 years ago, when the U.S., China and Norway dominated. Brazil has reached the final of the last three world championships (including the World Cup and the Olympics). Germany has become the world's most feared team, churning out top players such as captain Birgit Prinz, the alltime leading scorer in Women's World Cup history, with 14 goals. Meanwhile, China didn't even qualify for this year's 16-team field, and the U.S. has lost in the past year to Mexico, Sweden and England.
But the world will be facing a different U.S. team. When Sundhage, a Swede, took over in late 2007, she wanted the Americans to play with more skill than in the past, when they had won mostly with athleticism.
"What [Sundhage] has created is a different thought process about the game," says Wambach. "The U.S. has always been good at physicality, strength and fitness. If you can add the [skill] component to it, that's a really difficult combination to play against."
Will it be enough for the U.S. to add the long-awaited third star to the jersey in 2011? In Germany the home fans are expecting a third straight title. But with Wambach and Morgan leading the way, the Americans have the firepower to party like it's 1999.
THE TROPHY HUNT
Reputations are on the line this summer for the tournament's hosts, the world's most talented player and the hungry American team
The sixth Women's World Cup kicks off on Sunday, and over the following three weeks ESPN will broadcast all of the games live. The U.S.'s group is the toughest of the four, not least because Sweden has already beaten the Americans this year and North Korea tied them in their '07 Cup opener. The Yanks open the tournament against North Korea on June 28 in Dresden, then face Colombia on July 2 in Sinsheim and Sweden on July 6 in Wolfsburg. Three things to look for:
1. Can Marta finally win the Big One?
The Brazilian dynamo, now 25, is the five-time reigning world player of the year, but her team has been unable to win a world championship despite reaching the finals of the '07 World Cup and '04 and '08 Olympics. "I would give up every personal award I have ever gotten to win the World Cup as a team," says Marta, who plays her club ball in the Buffalo area and doesn't want Brazil to be known, like the Bills, for losing the Big Game four times.
2. Is this Germany's watershed moment?
Domestic support is at an alltime high for the nation's first Women's World Cup, which should make the atmosphere every bit as festive as it was during the men's Cup in 2006. The powerful German team, led by alltime World Cup scoring leader Birgit Prinz (above), will get a big boost from the home fans.
3. Can the U.S. break out?
The Americans won Olympic gold in '08 despite the absence of injured striker Abby Wambach. But more nations than ever are capable of a deep World Cup run, including rising powers Canada, England, North Korea and Sweden. Wambach and keeper Hope Solo may be the best players in the tournament at their positions, but the U.S. will need big performances from others, especially central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx.
GRANT WAHL'S WORLD CUP FORECAST
GROUPS LISTED IN PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH; TOP TWO TEAMS ADVANCE
GERMANY VS. UNITED STATES
OLYMPIC STADIUM, BERLIN, JULY 17
CANADA vs. BRAZIL
UNITED STATES (1C)