CHICAGO – With the final seconds ticking down and the Americans on the verge of their earliest exit ever from the Women's World Cup, Abby Wambach kept waving her index finger at her teammates.
One chance, she screamed, all they needed was one chance.
When it came in the form of a left-footed cross from Megan Rapinoe, Wambach pounced. With one vicious whip of her head, she changed the course of this year's World Cup and sparked a frenzy rarely seen for women's sports in the United States.
Wambach's clutch performance at the World Cup made her the clear choice for the 2011 Female Athlete of the Year in the United States, selected American by members of The Associated Press. The U.S. forward received 65 of the 214 votes cast, while teammate Hope Solo (38) was a distant second and UConn basketball star Maya Moore (35) was third.
Wambach is the first individual football player - man or woman - to win one of the AP's annual sports awards, which began in 1931. The U.S. women's team won in 1999, when their World Cup triumph at the Rose Bowl transfixed the nation.
''We, as a team, did something that no team since Mia Hamm was able to do,'' Wambach told the AP. ''Even the team that won the (Olympic) gold medal in 2008 wasn't able to inspire and get people excited about women's soccer. It goes to show you the impact drama can bring.''
Wambach's four goals in Germany give her 13 in three World Cup appearances. That's the most by an American, topping Michelle Akers by one, and puts her third on the all-time World Cup scoring list behind Brazil forward Marta and Germany striker Birgit Prinz. The 31-year-old American ranks third on the U.S. career scoring list with 125 goals, trailing only Mia Hamm (158) and Kristine Lilly (130).
''When she's on top of her game,'' United States coach Pia Sundhage said, ''she's one of the best in the world.''
Wambach was certainly at her best at the World Cup, leading the Americans to the final, where they lost to Japan on penalty kicks.
Wambach was also named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation, and the victory over Brazil was named the top sports accomplishment of the year in a Marist poll. The Women's World Cup ranked 10th in the voting for AP sports story of the year.
''I'm not a person who cares much about (individual) awards, but I really appreciate you guys recognizing this team,'' Wambach said. ''It helps keep this sport alive, and it's really important.''
Wambach takes her role as ambassador for the game seriously, recognizing that time in the spotlight is still rare for women's soccer and it must be taken advantage of. She is as accommodating a star athlete as there is, happy to sign autographs, pose for pictures or do interviews. This is how the game is grown, and that, not the goals or the scoring records, is what she hopes her legacy will be.
''Hopefully when I'm long gone, this team is so good that people don't even talk about (me),'' she said. ''Truthfully.''
Not that Wambach is going anywhere.
The Americans are the defending Olympic champions, and Wambach and her teammates are currently training for next month's regional qualifying tournament. She hopes to be healthy enough to play at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, and fill that last gap in a resume as dazzling as anyone who's ever worn the U.S. uniform.
''I have to say, of all people, I think she is one of the best role models: interacting with fans, saying good things about the game, saying good things about this country, saying good things about her teammates,'' Sundhage said. ''I'm very proud of the fact I've had the chance to coach her for so many years. It will be a highlight of my career.''