TUKWILA, Washington – Every so often, we're given a player capable of carrying a team on her back. On rare occasions, we're given players who can carry leagues, sports -- even countries.
Every so often, we get a player like Abby Wambach. The 31-year-old striker tends to lead by example and on-field production, but just as she has proven she's capable of carrying more than her team on her back, her leadership is also on the verge of transcending the US women's national team.
Thanks to the surge of support that's got behind the US women's national team, Abby Wambach is leading a movement.
Wambach and the US are one win away from pioneering a new era of women's soccer, one that could lift the game to new heights. The chance to usher in that change comes on Sunday against Japan in the Women's World Cup final.
Wambach leads that charge. She's now scored in each of the last three games, boosting her career total to 121 goals. Sunday's dramatic header tied the game in the final seconds before the US went on to beat Brazil on penalty kicks. Wednesday's goal, also a header, was the game-winner against France in the semifinal.
Clutch, incredible, unstoppable -- use all the superlatives you want -- but more than anything, Wambach is determined. No, she is not determined to reach the individual marks she's approaching, like breaking the Women's World Cup all-time scoring record (Wambach currently has 12 all-time World Cup goals, two behind Brazil's Marta and Germany's Birgit Prinz). For Wambach, the mission is clear.
"All I care about is standing on that top podium and raising that trophy and knowing that we are world champs," she said. "That is all of our focus. That is all that is on my mind and I can honestly say anything else that comes because of that, then I'll smile. But other than that, it's championship or bust."
It's easy to talk about putting the team first, but the great players actually do it. There is sincerity in Wambach's voice -- a passion to win an elusive Women's World Cup, something she has twice failed to do.
She has long had a legacy as the go-to goal scorer for the United States. She is third on the all-time scoring chart for the US, a list topped by the incredible Mia Hamm, whose total of 158 career goals looks unreachable.
Hamm defined a generation as the face of the US team through the `90's past the turn of the century. Even today, Hamm is viewed as an icon. So too is Hamm's long-time teammate Michelle Akers, who Wambach is now tied with atop the US record books for most all-time Women's World Cup goals (12).
And the similarities don't stop there.
Wambach is and has been the most dominant player in the air that the women's game has arguably ever seen. All three of her goals in this tournament have come in the air (two headers and one awkward shoulder goal), at the most critical of times.
That willingness to go after any 50-50 ball in the air is exactly what defined the gutsy warrior that Akers, FIFA's co-player of the century, proved to be for 14 years, making comparisons between Akers and Wambach inevitable.
"Any time somebody wants to put my name in the same sentence as Michelle Akers, I am very, very honored," Wambach said. "She not only was an idol but somebody that I looked up to growing up. She defined this team in terms of its courage and its ability to play through many different difficulties."
Courage is the word Wambach uses to describe what makes her so prolific in the air. Of her 121 career international goals, 49 have been headers. Both Sunday's goal against Brazil and Wednesday's game-winner against France were more than just game-changing headers. They were new leases on life for a US team that's been precariously close to being eliminated from Germany 2011.
The United States women are so often applauded for their never-say-die attitude that the phrase, the idea that the American spirit can overcome teams playing better soccer (like Brazil and France), has become cliche. And yet, it continues to be so accurate.
France coming up short on Wednesday in a game where it played well enough to win is just another example of American persistence through adversity. Just like this team, Wambach faced that throughout the build-up to the Women's World Cup.
She has been battling Achilles tendonitis the entire year. She has endured a drop in goal scoring production at the worst of times -- just before the tournament began -- and put up with the broken record of questions about her scoring drought. And through it all, she stayed positive, very much like this team.
The US was the last team to qualify for the Women's World Cup after slipping up in CONCACAF qualifying. The team struggled over the past year not necessarily to obtain results, but to do so in a manner convincing enough to think that it could take down mighty Germany, Brazil, or even a young, skillful team like France.
But to that notion, the American women, led by Wambach, closed their ears, stayed optimistic and continued to fight for results. Now, those have come, whether by playing pretty soccer or simply defending with every last bit of energy, the US is one win away from winning its first World Cup in 12 years.
Wambach is also on the verge of history. With one goal, she'll become the all-time Women's World Cup scorer for the US, something that means nothing to this leader, who is looked at as a sign of inspiration, even in the worst of games.
"I don't have a single feeling about any individual award at this point," she said. "Honestly, if I was to score and get the World Cup goal-scoring record, I could care less if we don't win this whole thing."
If the United States can defeat Japan in the final, the team -- and Wambach -- will cement its name in the history books as perhaps the most incredible story in the tournament's 20-year history. But that story remains incomplete until the final whistle blows on Sunday in Frankfurt.