Abby Wambach knows a thing or two about group play at a FIFA Women’s World Cup. She’s been through two of them so far, at the age of 23 in the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup and at the age of 27 in the 2007 tournament. Now, at age 31, she’ll experience a third in Germany.
She is familiar with two of the USA’s group opponents, or about as familiar as one can be with the reclusive North Koreas, but has faced Sweden many times in her career. She did not, however, play in the USA’s most recent match against the Swedes, a 2-1 loss this past January at the Four Nations Tournament in China in what was the USA’s first match of the year.
As much as Wambach is looking forward to all three group matches, which also includes a clash with the up-and-coming Colombians, she knows as well as anyone that right now, all focus is on the first, crucial match of group play.
“We don’t know much about the North Koreans, but what we do know is that they played us evenly in 2007 and they’re going to be a really technical team,” said Wambach, who is sure that the Korean team will be expending the maximum amount of energy possible in the opener to beat the USA.
“I remember watching video of them in ‘07 and they really compact their shape,” said Wambach. “Defensively, their 10 players in the field can sometimes be in a 20-by-20 yard area and I think that makes it really difficult, but it also makes them susceptible if we can find the big ball switch over their back line. I think in general they are probably going to play as physical as they possibly can to match us.”
Wambach also knows a thing or two about physical play, often bearing the brunt of the opponents’ aggressions while dishing out some punishment of her own. Against North Korea in 2007, she cracked heads with a defender in the 55th minute, opening a gash on her head that required multiple stitches to close. She was off the field for a full nine minutes, during which time the Koreans scored both of their goals. But Wambach is quick to point out that the 2007 match has little or nothing to do with the game on June 28 in Dresden.
“Truth be told, it’s such a different team and even though it was a positive that we went down a goal and came back to score and earn a point, we don’t have to look in the past for motivation,” said Wambach.
Still, the oddity of the U.S. team facing North Korea in four World Cups is a row is not lost on Wambach (due to the format in which the draws were held, the USA was pretty much assured of getting an Asian team in all four tournaments and the North Koreans just happened to come out of the pot each time), but once again, it’s not something she or her teammates are thinking about.
“It’s weird but that’s nothing that’s in our control so you can’t get upset about it,” said Wambach. “You just got to roll with the punches.”
The USA will face a much different challenge in its second group match against World Cup debutantes Colombia. It’s a team with many members who have been together through a U-17 Women’s World Cup and a U-20 Women’s World Cup. It’s a team that has nothing to lose and is likely cherishing its opportunity to take on one of the big powers in women’s soccer on the biggest stage.
“(Playing in their first World Cup) means that they are going to be really excited,” said Wambach. “We are not going overlook any team and we respect all of our opponents. They want to win as much as us. We want to prepare for each opponent and this entire tournament the same way and we want it to last until the end. In order to do that, we have to play our strongest game every single time we line up, not only because it will give us confidence, but because we also know each team is going to give us their best game.”
The Colombians were surprise semifinalists at the U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup last summer in Germany so they may have a bit of mojo heading into this year’s tournament.
“The longer you get to play with somebody the better you are going to be,” said Wambach. “I remember watching Colombia in the U-20 World Cup last year and I remember feeling like there was a couple of really great players on the team and I think those players will really help them do as well as they possibly can in this tournament.”
The USA is certainly hoping to pick up maximum points in the first two matches as the dangerous Swedes await in the third and final group game. The Americans have had great success against Sweden in recent years – including first round victories in both the 2003 and 2007 Women’s World Cups – but the Scandinavians do feature a few of the world’s best attacking players. Wambach and goalkeeper Hope Solo did not play in the match against Sweden earlier this year, but both teams are certainly likely to be revving at a higher RPM than during that January match in chilly Chongqing.
“We want to go out and dictate our tempo,” said Wambach. “The size of the field is going to be a big factor for this game. I think the fitness level of our team is going to really show. Truth to be told, against the Swedish side, they are so big and tall, set plays might well determine the outcome and if you can capitalize and prevent, you’ll do well.”
While it is cliché for the U.S. players to keep repeating the mantra of “one game at a time” the fact is that the U.S. team is very good at focusing on just at their next opponent and no further.
“It’s funny but because (she’s so focused on North Korea), I sometimes forget that we play Colombia and Sweden,” said Wambach. “I only think, ‘Ok, we’ve got to get through this first game and then I’ll focus on Colombia.’ It’s a good thing to compartmentalize throughout a long tournament, especially one in which you have a lot of games in a short period of time. It can get to be too confusing – certain players, certain tactics. We just focus on the task at hand. The fact that matters is that it’s a World Cup and everybody’s excitement and nerves and adrenaline are going to be flowing anyhow. In the end, we’re fortunate to have played both Sweden and North Korea in our past but truthfully, we just have to focus on North Korea, get the points that we need to get, get out of the game, and move on to Colombia.”
Spoken like someone who’s been there before.