BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – With just seconds left on the clock in extra time, Abby Wambach ran up the field, wagging her finger at her teammates, imploring them for just one more chance.
It was the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup, and the United States was losing 2-1 to Brazil. The teams already had played more than 120 minutes, and referee Jacqui Melksham had the whistle in her mouth, ready to end the game.
After a desperate left-wing run, American Megan Rapinoe fired a terrific cross into the penalty box, where Wambach was waiting. Brazil goalkeeper Andreia came for the ball, but missed. Wambach whipped in the header -- and American fans exploded with joy.
The US went to win the game on penalty kicks, and the Women's World Cup became big news across the nation this past July. With one flick of her head, Wambach had taken women's soccer back to heights unknown since the 1999 Women's World Cup.
While the Americans faltered at the finish line, losing to Japan on penalties after a raucous final, Wambach became the face of not only the team, but the sport itself. This past December, her status was cemented further when she became the first individual soccer player -- of either gender-- to be named as one of The Associated Press' Athletes of the Year (The entire women's team won the 1999 award).
Now, with a shot at an Olympic gold medal at stake, Wambach will lead her team out as the qualifying cycle begins Jan. 19 in chilly Vancouver. The Americans are chasing their fourth gold medal, but it won't be simple. They must survive a grueling five-match, nine-day sprint -- and a major showdown with Mexico -- just to get a shot at the London Games. And it will play out on artificial-turf fields in Canada.
Adding to the pressure is the fact this is probably the last rodeo for Wambach. The 31-year-old is currently without a pro club after Women's Professional Soccer forcibly folded the team she both played for and managed; moreover, she is battling a long-standing Achilles tendon injury and says she is unlikely to risk playing for any other team before the Olympics.
"The most important thing for me now is to play for a gold medal," said Wambach, who then added candidly, "I'm not as young as I once was."
Wambach has good reason to be careful this time: She missed the entire Beijing Games with a broken leg.
In the final pre-tournament friendly in 2008, Wambach collided with Brazilian defender Andreia Rosa, fracturing her left leg in two places. The injury dealt a sharp blow to the Americans' chances and called into question the wisdom of playing exhibition games so close to a major tournament.
The United States went on to win gold, beating Brazil 1-0 in extra time in the final -- but the injury still gnaws at Wambach.
"I was part of that 2008 team whether I was there or not," Wambach said, "But there is a little bit of emptiness inside that you carry. I think all great athletes carry that, and I think it can push you into the most successful times. . . . The devastation that takes is one thing, but you do learn never to take anything for granted.
"Hopefully, I can look back and say that 2008 was the best thing that ever happened to me, that it extended my career and allowed me to play in 2012."
Things Wambach certainly would like to put behind her are some of the memories of the World Cup. The Americans stumbled in qualifying -- needing to survive a November 2010 play-in with Italy just to get to Germany -- then were rocked in the group stage by a loss to Sweden that provided further evidence they weren't the team of old.
"It's hard -- it was a bittersweet summer," Wambach said. "I put so much importance on winning, but when we came back, we found that in the USA people didn't care because we made them proud. I think there's something to be said for that. You know, it was an exciting time and we enjoyed every moment of it, and we're still reaping the benefits."
uestions still hover over the squad, which relies so heavily on Wambach to score. The Americans will play in a 4-2-3-1 formation -- essentially a riff on a 4-5-1 -- featuring Wambach as the lone striker. With Wambach, the Americans can drive hard into the box and hope -- without her, they are too often a one-dimensional side that struggles in front of the net.
Wambach knows how much rides on her shoulders, but she said this veteran-stocked team can win it all.
"We can win every game we play," she said. "That's not cockiness; that's just the culture of the team. It's a belief."