TAMPA — When it comes to the United States Women's National Team, forward Abby Wambach is nothing short of great.
She has two Olympic gold medals and has represented the United States in 221 career starts. She is a six-time winner of the U.S. Soccer Player of the Year, the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year and the 2013 runner-up. And maybe most impressive of all is Wambach's legacy of 167 international goals — the most all time.
One hundred sixty-seven.
Not the most goals by a woman. Not the most goals by an American. Wambach's 167 goals are an all-time world record in international soccer — a record she set last June when she passed retired U.S. player Mia Hamm (158) with a four-goal night in a win over South Korean.
“Abby is a role model,” new U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “She can go out and talk to 14-year-olds and inspire them and she can inspire her peers. She has just done so much and been such a tremendous player.”
However, there is one career milestone that has eluded the all-time goals leader — a World Cup title.
As the sports world turns its attention to the 2014 FIFA Men's World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. Women's National Team will take the pitch tonight at Raymond James Stadium in an international friendly against FIFA No. 4-ranked France.
Though the first of a pair of June friendlies — soccer's version of an exhibition — against France (the two will meet Thursday in Connecticut), tonight's meeting will be anything but meaningless. Just four months away from October's Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) tournament to determine the qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup tournament for women's soccer, the matches against France will be a tune-up as the U.S. vies for one of three guaranteed spots in the sport's biggest tournament, hosted next year in Canada.
Tonight's match also marks the official debut for Ellis as the No. 1-ranked U.S. National Team's head coach. Ellis, who was 6-0-3 in two different stints as interim head coach, said the first meeting with France will be a big step toward uniting the team as 25 of 26 U.S. players on the roster are in the middle of a season with teams in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).
Tonight's match could mark a return for forward Alex Morgan from an injury (fractured foot) suffered last year. The team will suit up 18 players for tonight's match, but the official roster will not be announced until an hour before game time.
One unknown is the status of Wambach for the match as she works her way back from a knee injury suffered with her NWSL team, the Western New York Flash. Wambach is day-to-day, Ellis said, and the forward was limited in team workouts this week at the University of South Florida.
As was the case a decade ago, when Wambach, 34, assumed the mantle of the face of U.S. women's soccer from Hamm, the University of Florida grad knows the time may soon come for that mantle to be passed to the next generation of soccer players.
“I think these kids are doing it for themselves,” Wambach said. “I think Alex and Syd (forward Sydney Leroux) and some of our younger players are making names for themselves. It's not even going to necessarily be a handed-over torch. It's just going to be something they own, grab onto and run with.”
However, she isn't ready to give up the title just yet. The skills of her younger teammates, such as Morgan and Leroux, both 24, have only helped create scoring chances for Wambach.
“Success is really a byproduct of hard work and belief in your teammates to push you and help you to get into those positions,” Wambach said. “If Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux didn't come on the scene, I'm not sure if I break that record.”
“Your teammates, not only do they help you, they push you. You're not only competing with them, you are competing against them to be the one and help your team.”