By Dean Russin
ONEONTA _ Abby Wambach may be just what the doctor ordered for professional women's soccer to make a full recovery.
Still sidelined by a compound fracture to her left leg, Rochester native and U.S. National Women's Team standout Wambach made a point to sit down and talk to hundreds of local modified soccer players this past weekend at the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Local schools such as Oneonta High, Unatego and South Kortright participated in a Sunday afternoon question-and-answer session with Wambach, part motivational speaker, part Women's Professional Soccer league promoter during a program that lasted a little more than a half-hour.
Wambach, 28, candidly answered dozens of questions about her personal and professional lives during the second day of her first visit to the soccer shrine. Seated in front of a packed bleacher area inside the museum _ just to the right of an exhibit honoring the defunct Women's United Soccer Association _ Wambach called on a girl who best illustrated the WPS's biggest obstacle.
"I forgot your name," the girl sheepishly said to Wambach, a two-time U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year whose 99 goals in 127 games marks the best strike rate in U.S. women's soccer history.
"It's not personal," Wambach said after the program, "but the beauty of it is now that girl knows who I am. I'm not this superstar who's unavailable. I'll talk to anybody."
Wambach often spoke of the link between youth involvement and the survival of women's soccer at the professional level.
"Soccer's the most popular sport at the young ages, but then in high school and after, it just drops off," she said. "So, we have to bridge that gap somehow and how do you do that? You give the kids more face time so they have more inspiration and more opportunities to play."
The WUSA folded after two years in 2003, the year Wambach led the Washington Freedom to the Founder's Cup title as the MVP of the season-ending tournament, despite the star power of players such as 2007 National Hall of Famers Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Still, Wambach said she is confident the WPS, which will launch with seven teams in April and expand to 10 thereafter, will succeed where the WUSA failed.
"It's a professional league in a faltering economy, so who knows what's going to happen?" she said. "However, we believe if we put a good product on the field, then people will sit and watch us and it will be great to watch.
"To really keep a league going and sustainable, that's my goal," she continued. "I don't think it's my responsibility _ no one player has complete control over what happens _ but I do know that I have a big responsibility and that's the stuff that I love. Put the pressure on my shoulders, I can handle it. That's where I thrive. Under those circumstances, that's when I do my best."
Wambach said she's about two weeks away from jogging for the first time since suffering fractures to the tibia and fibula during a collision with a Brazilian defender in the 31st minute of a July 16 exhibition. Wambach sustained the injuries less than a month before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where the U.S. won the gold medal despite the absence of one of its best players.
"The leg's good, it's healing," said Wambach, whose left-leg bones are secured by a titanium rod that is held in place by screws at her ankle and knee. "I'm about to run in a couple of weeks, so I'm really excited, and then, three months after that, I should be back playing."
Wambach said the injury will do nothing to change the way she plays soccer in the future.
"I only play the game one way ... so I highly doubt that I would be tentative," she said.
As for long term, Wambach said there will come a time when "my life will go in a different direction, and then I'll retire."
"Relationships suffer, parents, your family, birthdays, weddings, vacations ... that's what makes what I do so special, because I sacrifice a lot to do it, and I wouldn't change it for the world," she said. "Eight more years. That's my goal, to get to 2016 _ if my body allows me to."
Dean Russin can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 215.