It was a horrible moment by any measure.
Abby Wambach had just bundled into a Brazilian defender in the 31st minute of the USA’s final warm-up match before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, snapping the tibia and fibula in her left leg. In a split second, the gruesome injury ended Wambach’s Olympic dreams and, for many pundits, those of the entire U.S. Women’s National Team.
They say that everything happens for a reason, and those reasons would eventually come into focus, but at that moment, there were dark clouds hovering.
Fortunately, then-head coach Pia Sundhage was not one for stormy days. Despite the dark, five-month winters in her native Sweden, Sundhage was, and still is, a perennial sunshine kind of person.
If there was a soccer problem to solve, Sundhage was not one to sulk. She wanted to find a solution.
Enter Angela Hucles, to that match and eventually into U.S. Women’s National Team history.
Hucles closed out the match in place of Wambach as the USA triumphed 1-0 on a late goal from the Flyin’ Hawaiian, Natasha Kai.
“I remember the moment Abby went down really clearly,” said Hucles, who starred in college at the University of Virginia from 1996-1999 and debuted for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2002. “I remember the feeling standing on the sideline, not wanting to start bawling, but the emotions were welling up and I was trying to stifle that. We all knew that Abby was badly injured. It was almost as if you could drop a pin on the grass and we would have heard it on the bench. I could see the panic and concerned look in Pia’s eyes, and then Jill waved to me to get warmed up. In that instant, I was able to transition to focusing on what I was being called to do, but we all knew what was going on. It was an eerie feeling.”
Jill Ellis, who would take the reins of the WNT program in 2014 and eventually win two World Cups, was an assistant to Sundhage on that Olympic Team and an advocate for Hucles. Sundhage would later be quoted as saying Ellis’ recommendation played a big part in her giving Hucles a shot up top.
“I remember telling Pia I felt Angela gave us some real positive qualities and that she was a good option,” said Ellis. “We felt she was a player who could hold the ball and get in behind. She was a hard worker, skillful and at that time, a really good option. From the beginning of the Olympics, you couldn’t take her out. She was phenomenal for us.”
“When Abby got hurt, I didn’t have any thoughts of my role changing into what is was going to become. I had no idea,” said Hucles. “We had other forwards who were playing and had played that position. I was playing primarily midfield at the time.”
After one of the first practices on the ground in China, Sundhage, who had also coached Hucles in the WUSA for the Boston Breakers, pulled her aside and outlined a new tactical plan. They would deploy her as a forward.
“Pia explained how I was going to work within the team and play that position using my skill set, being that it was extremely different from Abby to say the least,” added Hucles. “We got to China and we hit the reset button. I’m not sure we had a Plan B before Abby got hurt, but Pia was like, ‘here is new the game plan and here is how you fit into it.’”
And that’s how it came to pass that Hucles found herself in the starting lineup of the USA’s first 2008 Olympic match against Norway in Qinhuangdao, China, just 21 days after Wambach’s injury. She had started just one match in 2008 leading into the Summer Games.
With Wambach back in the USA recovering from surgery to insert a rod into her leg, Sundhage deployed two players up top with world class wheels, starting Kai in the first game and Amy Rodriguez in the remaining five matches. The goal was to play Hucles, who was no slouch in the speed department herself, off her pacey counterparts.
The adjustment was not seamless. In the first game, the Americans struggled to find their rhythm without their charismatic talisman Wambach, who was so important to everything they had done in the attack. The USA stunningly allowed two goals in the first four minutes of the Olympics, eventually losing 2-0 to Norway, and the doubters piled on.
But as anyone who has ever played for the USWNT knows, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish, and the Americans – who became increasingly comfortable with each other and their responsibilities as the tournament progressed -- rolled off five straight wins to take the gold medal.
“That first game was pretty much crap,” said Hucles. “As a team, we were like, ‘no, this isn’t going to happen.’ I think more than anything, we were shocked and stunned with the situation we were in. We were just trying to figure out a game plan that was different than the entire period leading up to the Olympics. We felt a combination of all those things all at once. It was stressful. But as soon as I left the field after losing to Norway, I left those feelings there and refocused. We all did. Our mindsets and messaging shared by our team leaders and our coaching staff were solid. We just need to fit together a little better and keep that U.S. mentality. The media were definitely trying to thwart that mental fortitude, but we held strong and it paid off.”
Hucles started all six of the Olympic matches, scoring four goals over the final group match, the quarterfinal and the semifinal, and made an invaluable contribution to a tournament that also saw important scores from Carli Lloyd, Kai, Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O’Reilly and Lori Chalupny.
In the second group match, a must-win game after the loss to the Scandinavians, the USA pulled off a 1-0 victory against Japan on a goal from Lloyd and then finished group play with a 4-0 trouncing of New Zealand that saw O’Reilly score 40 seconds in (the quickest goal in Olympic history) and Hucles open her Olympic account.
Due to the wild results on the final day of Group G games, with the USA scoring four times and Japan unexpectedly trouncing Norway 5-1, the USA actually won the Group G on goal difference, which set up a quarterfinal clash with Canada. In that first knockout game, Hucles opened scoring in the 12th minute before sheets of rain started falling. The game was delayed for an hour and 39 minutes due to lightning. Canada equalized soon after the restart, but a dramatic 101st minute diving header goal from Kai secured the 2-1 victory for the USA.
“That was a fun game,” said Hucles of the wet and wild match that saw the USA out-shoot Canada 34-8. “I felt like we came out on fire, and there’s always an extra something there when the USA plays Canada. We were knocking on the door to score and then the rain came. It was exhausting to keep mentally focused, but we showed what we were about, persevering and finding a way.”
The semifinal, a rousing 4-2 win vs. Japan after falling behind 1-0, featured two Hucles goals – the first and last sandwiched around scores from Chalupny and O’Reilly – to send the USA to the gold medal game.
“That semifinal game was very important for us,” said Hucles. “First of all, we were able to come back from behind and win, something we didn’t do in the first game, and scored four goals in a row from three different players to put the game away. Collectively, we knew we were all on same page. There were so many positive strengths to come out of a high-intensity match like that.”
The USA would need every ounce of the energy for the championship game. Brazil was coming off a 4-1 semifinal win over 2007 FIFA World Cup champion Germany that shocked the women’s soccer world, and of course the Canarinhas had defeated the USA 4-0 a year earlier in the World Cup semifinal, a loss that remains the worst ever in U.S. history. Brazil was riding high, as high as they’d ever been in their program’s history to date, or even since.
The USA, in a rare moment as the underdog, rose to the occasion on the back of Hope Solo’s stellar play in goal, some incredibly stout defense and Lloyd’s overtime wonder strike to secure a 1-0 victory. The USA claimed its third Olympic gold medal, a second for Hucles, who was a reserve on the 2004 Olympic Team.
Hucles, who had scored just seven career goals in 84 caps and made only 24 career starts heading into the Olympics, ended as the second leading scorer in the entire competition, and added her name to a list of iconic clutch USWNT performances. To this day, the always humble Hucles gives the credit to her team and the coaches.
“I really was just doing whatever I could in that moment, focusing on the task at hand,” said Hucles. “Having my role clearly outlined and having that guidance and vision from the coaching staff to focus on what they knew I could do within the system made all the difference. If it wasn’t for that perfect combination, I don’t know if I could have done all that I did, but I feel like it was the same for all of us on that team. Losing Abby’s presence, I think we all had to step up and fill what was missing, but not one person could do it alone. They gave me my piece of the puzzle and gave everyone else their pieces, and we just all had to bring that out at our maximum capacity.”
Following that gold medal triumph, Hucles would play 25 more games for the USA and score two more goals. She retired from playing in 2009 but has continued to contribute to the sport and to society, serving as President of the Women’s Sports Foundation over 2015-2016, doing public speaking on leadership, the power of sport, equality and inclusion, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and putting her expertise to use in soccer broadcasting. She was recently announced as one of the co-owners of the new Los Angeles NWSL franchise, Angel City, and became a mom for the first time in 2017. Into everything she done, she’s brought her soccer experiences and especially the lessons learned from a magical three weeks in China.
“I take from that experience the satisfaction of so many valuable life lessons that have sustained me, but things that I can also share with others,” said Hucles. “The Olympics was a testament to why I love team spots. Yeah, I scored four goals in that one tournament, but it’s because I was playing with the best players and staff around me. We all did that together and that’s what made it really special.”
“Perhaps the deeper metaphysical part is that Abby sacrificed for us. While she was a huge loss, and maybe we would have completely dominated teams with her in the lineup, it almost felt like when she went down, she had sacrificed everything she had for the team to that point and then we had to come together and get it done for her too. There was a lot about the experience that we didn’t necessarily understand at the time, but when I look back at the tournament more than a decade later, that’s how I feel.”
They say that everything happens for a reason. Reasons explained.