As the final whistle blew in a 1-0 loss to Sky Blue FC on Sunday, Western New York Flash forward Abby Wambach sank toward the ground, crouching and staring into space.
It wasn’t a feeling she’s used to.
Seconds earlier, she’d had one last chance to strike an equalizer, finding herself open from about 12 yards out. There was no goalkeeper in the net — the result of a scramble for a long pass that Wambach managed to latch onto and guide through traffic.
All she had to do was slip the ball past a Sky Blue FC defender desperately trying to cover for the keeper, but instead, Wambach fired high and over the bar.
Wambach hit the ground before the ball did, her head in her hands. During a career filled with goals by the boatload, she’s used to putting those away.
When she and the Flash enter the Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday night to take on the Washington Spirit, it will be for a chance to erase the sting from that opening loss. The Spirit are expecting it — a “dogfight,” as captain Lori Lindsey said — but just how do they plan to stop Wambach?
As Lindsey and head coach Mike Jorden described this week, there are a few key points to keeping Wambach off the score sheet.
First, Jorden said, is denying her the ball.
“We have to try to keep the ball off her feet,” he said. “She’s a physical presence and they’re coming off a loss so they’re going to be hungry and probably coming at us pretty hard. She’s a great player, and all we can do is try to defend her.”
That burden will fall most heavily on whichever two centerbacks Jorden deploys Saturday, which is far from certain veteran Candace Chapman still not at 100% and the first year pro coach having rotated different pairings throughout preseason before pairing Robyn Gayle and Tori Huster against Boston last weekend in a near shutout performance. The one sure thing is whoever plays there, they’ll gain confidence with U.S. National Team goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris will be behind them.
As the holding midfielder, Lindsey will be keeping an eye on her U.S. teammate too, hoping to throw the Flash off their rhythm by taking Wambach out of the equation.
“She’s going to battle and work hard, so if we can do what we can to deny service in to her head — she’s a force to be reckoned with in the air, probably the best in the world,” Lindsey said. “If we can minimize some of that and just deny balls into her feet so she doesn’t get too many touches, then I think that can sort of frustrate her and frustrate their team a little bit that they can’t play through her.”
Of course, that’s a tall order when talking about Wambach, the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year who sits three goals away from one of the most coveted records in the sport: Mia Hamm’s international goals record of 158.
The Spirit are well-aware of her talent, not just through her exploits with the U.S. women’s national team. Wambach previously spent two stints playing for the Washington Freedom, where Harris, Lindsey and Krieger were her teammates.
And she certainly won’t be alone when the first ball is kicked at 7 p.m. Forwards Adriana and Veronica Perez will also present challenges for the Spirit back line, which held the Boston Breakers scoreless until a stoppage-time equalizer in the season opener.
“They have a few other dangerous players on that team, so we’re just going to try to press a little higher,” Jorden said. “The big thing with her [Wambach] too is getting on the ends of crosses and set pieces. She’s a presence in the box so we have to play very physical this weekend.”
And it will help the Spirit to have a few thousand fans on their side.
The club expects a near sellout of the 4,500-capacity venue. And with more than 3,000 tickets gone as of Friday evening, fans wanting to be sure they get in are encouraged to order in advance at tickets.washingtonspirit.com.
Altogether, it’s an exciting challenge and a perfect way to kick off the home slate of games.
“It was nice to get a game under our belts in Boston, and now especially to have this home game and have Abby coming back after she played here for a number of years, I think that adds to the excitement of getting a team back in the D.C. area,” Lindsey said. “I’m super excited to play in front of the home fans.”