As Abby goes …

U.S. Women's Soccer is relying on Abby Wambach as much as ever; a risky approach with only one acceptable outcome

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OTTAWA, Ontario – Gliding through the air, Abby Wambach buried the game-winning goal against Nigeria on June 16 to ensure the United States finished atop Group D heading into the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup.

BC Place in Vancouver erupted and Wambach blacked out. “I literally don’t know what happened after we scored,” Wambach said after the game. She scored the goal with her foot – maybe even the bottom of her shin; she wasn’t quite sure – instead of her head, the body part with which she has scored 77 of her world-record 183 international goals.

The moment, however, was still a familiar one: Wambach scoring the game-winner for the U.S. in a World Cup match, electrifying the sellout, partisan crowd and rallying her teammates after yet another slow start to the match (seconds later, the halftime whistle blew).

Nostalgia has been omnipresent for the United States at this World Cup – Wambach’s role, the 4-4-2 formation, playing against Pia Sundhage. The trend continues on Friday against China in the quarterfinals with a rematch of the 1999 World Cup final, the last time the U.S. won the tournament.

Yet it’s been an underwhelming World Cup for the United States, despite their advancement to the quarterfinals (the U.S. has never fallen short of the semifinals in six previous World Cups). Sorting out the spacing in the midfield and finishing opportunities are two of the largest issues.

Wambach has struggled at times, as well. Too much is on her shoulders, even if she embraces the pressure. More than ever before, Wambach is the pulse of this U.S. team both on and off the field. She’s at the center of the huddles instructing her teammates, she steps up to face the tough questions – even if not everyone likes her answers – in the face of increased criticism. And make no mistake, she loves all of that. She embraces her role as a central figure to the sport.

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But having such a visible presence in the tournament has also drawn the ire of many neutral fans, annoyed with Wambach for blaming her lack of scoring on the artificial turf and then later suggesting that the referee “purposefully” awarded yellow cards to Rapinoe and Holiday. Wambach apologized the following day, just barely getting her out of trouble (more on that in a bit).

Headline-worthy material is great for bringing attention to the sport. Wambach gets that. “Now that people are more on board toward the beginning part of the tournament, they want to analyze, hyper-analyze and break things down, which for me, I’m all about, because I love it,” she said earlier in the tournament. “I love reading everything everybody has to say. I don’t think that everybody is right in everything that they say, but the reality is that we’re talking about the game and those are really good conversations to be had.”

All of that extra-curricular activity may not be great for this U.S. team, however.

U.S. players speak often of staying in their “bubble” and away from criticisms lobbed at them from the outside world, but distractions are too plentiful in this digital age to be entirely avoided. In fact, distractions are everywhere for the world’s most scrutinized team.

Wambach’s comments exacerbate those issues. Her jab at referee Stephanie Frappart nearly cost Wambach a chance at playing in Friday’s match. The U.S. forward said after Monday’s round-of-16 victory over Colombia that she thought Frappart “purposefully” awarded yellow cards to midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, knowing that it would get each player suspended. Wambach swiftly apologized the next day, and on Thursday FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee issued her a warning but chose not to suspend her. Imagine Wambach — whose sole purpose for so long has been to win the World Cup — missing a quarterfinal match because she spoke out about a ref in a match her team won anyway. The fallout for that talk would have been cataclysmic, crossing the threshold from distraction to downright detrimental.

On the field, Wambach’s role remains a central question which Ellis must address. Will she start against China? Is she fit to start on three days of rest? “I think she’d be ready to go for 90 minutes if asked and if it happens,” Ellis said Thursday.

Coming into this World Cup, many expected Wambach to start some matches but possibly come off the bench more often than not. Yet with scoring at a premium and Ellis in search of options, Wambach started three of the first four matches, playing 271 of a possible 360 minutes. That’s more than most expected Wambach to play thus far, but “probably right on” for Ellis’ pre-tournament expectations, the coach said Thursday.

“In terms of Abby, very much so, I look at what an opponent presents,” Ellis said Thursday. “Abby has some unique tools. The decision against Colombia is that we felt again on set pieces and balls in the box, we could have a very good chance in the air with her presence. I look at China and what they present and what tools they have to try and be successful and break them down. That’s kind of how I approach it.”

Wambach was spectacular with her feet – not her head – against Nigeria, checking back into the midfield to hold the ball up and combine in a way that nobody else on the U.S. team was willing to do. Her goal in that match was the difference, but it remains her lone tally of the tournament (she’s one short of tying Marta for the most in Women’s World Cup history).

Signature Abby moments seem more irregular. Her scoring against the world’s best teams has declined significantly over the past few years. She has struggled with her timing in the air and her missed penalty kick against Colombia on Monday momentarily looked like it would exacerbate the team’s scoring woes.

At stake this tournament is Wambach’s legacy. She speaks openly about her all-consuming desire to win the tournament. “You’re damn right I need it,” she said of the World Cup earlier this month.

“It’s all that I’m thinking about, all that’s on my mind,” she said. “It’s the thing that I haven’t been able to be a part of, I haven’t won yet. It’s something that I know that all of us have to be willing to be forever disappointed in not winning. Because that’s what it takes. You have to completely give in to it. You have to really allow yourself to be crushed by something. It’s like love. And if we give into it, if all of us give into it, then I think we could have a chance at this.”

Her relentless pursuit of greatness is unmistakably commendable. But the U.S. is learning that desire is no longer the chief ingredient for success; everyone has desire. And Ellis has tough decisions to make regarding how to use Wambach.

“I just know Abby. I know big moments, she’ll deliver,” Ellis said after that Nigeria victory.

That theory will be put to the test again on Friday, and even more so next week, should the U.S. advance. There has been plenty to talk about at this World Cup, but come July 5, the only talking point domestically will revolve around whether or not the U.S., likely led by Wambach, has emerged on top.