As record nears, Wambach in own class

By Michael Lewis

HARRISON, N.J. -- Abby Wambach claims that it's never about her, that it's all about the team.

Well, on this particular occasion, it is about her. The U.S. striker finds herself two goals shy of tying former teammate and U.S. international Mia Hamm for the all-time goal-scoring lead.

Wambach will have an opportunity to add to her 156 goals against the Korea Republic in an international friendly at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night.

Not surprisingly, the humble Wambach downplayed herself and praised Hamm, who retired in 2004 with 158 goals.

"It's an honor to be in the same conversation, in my opinion, with the greatest of all time," she said on Wednesday. "But she would probably be the first to say that records are meant to be broken. For me, it's a tribute to the kind of work she did and the kind of work she did to inspire kids my age when I was growing up through the '99 era.

"To be able to have played with her on the same pitch for a couple of years before she retired that was also an honor for me. It's almost as though I want to stop one before. That's how much I respect. In the end, she set that record up in a lot of ways to be broken and hopefully by one of the players she helped grow. It can only help that Alex [Morgan, Wambach's U.S. teammate] blows whatever record I set out of the water. I know she's on pace to do it, but you've got to stay healthy, be put in the right situation to score goals. In lieu of that, I've got a 150 whatever goals because of my teammates."

Wambach has thrown her body around trying to score goals since earning her first cap in 2003. And even though she is pleased to be this close to the record, the Western New York Flash forward views her pursuit of history in a larger context.

"I just assume to get over with it as soon as possible," Wambach said. "This team is way bigger than one person, and way bigger than one record. What I hope that it can do is for even an Alex Morgan is inspire her to keep scoring goals at the ridiculous rate that she is doing it. What I also hope it can do it bridge that gap -- give people something to talk about -- between now and the World Cup [in Canada in 2015]. That's always proven to be difficult for us. It gives us something else to talk about, to be excited about and to celebrate because it does show that women's soccer is pushing forward and growing."

U.S. captain and veteran defender Christie Rampone has played against the 33-year-old Wambach in practice and marveled at her goal-scoring prowess in international matches.

Rampone said that trying to mark Wambach has been "very difficult. Abby's -- she's got it all, her presence on the field, her heading presence, her runs. She's faster than people think she is. She brings the physical side, but also the intelligent side. She's smart. She knows when to make her runs. She makes the girls around her better. You're seeing in the NWSL [National Women's Soccer League] how she is communicating with the young kids out there and making them better and bringing it here. Hopefully, keep challenging to make sure she breaks this record in Jersey."

As it turns out, Rampone is the only player on the current roster that performed with Wambach and Hamm for any great length of time. This gives her a unique perspective having played against both players in practice.

Rampone said the players were "completely different, completely different. The similarity is that they are big time players in big moments and the pressure they thrive on. They become bigger in those type of games. The difference is that Abby is more of a triple threat. She's quick, she's good in the air, she gets behind defenses. I think Mia, you always had to mark her with two in the way of her speed and the way she cut that ball back. That's all you ever see and visualize her is tearing it up down the left side, cutting it back and finishing a shot. Mia with her finishing is probably more precise and where she placed it. Abby is that very aggressive, get in there, put any piece of her body on it, head, thigh, foot, and it's in the back of the net."

Wambach said she is in better shape this year than last. And playing club soccer on a regular basis certainly has helped.

"My Achilles tendinitis has subsided," she said. "I found the right course of treatment for me to take the pain away. That's a huge mental break, because when you're playing in pain, it's 10 times as hard. I feel reinvigorated after I haven't been my proper self in terms of the way I have been playing for about six months. But I am starting come back into my own. This league has really helped me to get those day in and day out practices and the games that allow you to work out the kinks and the cobwebs."

While Wambach doesn't need much motivation to play at the highest level possible, she wants to play at least two more years to get another opportunity to win the FIFA Women's World Cup. Wambach's USA teams have fallen short in 2003, 2007 and 2011. She has won two Olympic gold medals (2004, 2012).

"There is no better inspiration or motivation for any athlete, especially me having missed out ever being able to win one," she said.. "I know I will be an older player. I will be 35. Hopefully, I can stay healthy and still I'm up to par to be a part of that team to hopefully bring home our first World Cup since '99."